Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction

Note: This essay originally published in a slightly different form in the New York Review of Science Fiction, June 2007, Number 226.


   If the world ended today, what books would you save? What books so illuminate the human condition, so delve into the depths of who and what we are, that they should guide future generations in any attempt to rebuild civilization?

   Unfortunately, the question is unlikely to be answered by today’s leading literary critics, who’d probably say that such a melodramatic query is only worthy of speculative fiction. Such a response would be fitting. For the literati, the world is truly ending as sales of literary novels plummet (Wyatt 2006). With estimates saying that a mere 25,000 readers (Miller 2005) still partake of literary fiction in America, few would dispute that the literati face a crisis worthy of the most epic of fantasy novels.

   Luckily, the literary establishment has a plan to save their world: Import the themes and tropes and writing styles which still resonate with readers. Use the best of speculative fiction to save their dying high literature.

   The catch is that only “serious literary writers” can dip their toes in the genre whirlpool. For those writers who’ve been creating masterpieces of speculative fiction for the last half century, don’t even think about leaving your seat at the back of the literary bus.

The Road and A Canticle for Leibowitz

   To understand this dipolar view of the United States literary establishment both needing and hating speculative fiction, consider the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road. Even before McCarthy’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, literary critics applauded the book. William Kennedy’s love-fest in The New York Times Book Review was typical of this reaction, with Kennedy writing, “Cormac McCarthy’s subject in his new novel is as big as it gets: the end of the civilized world, the dying of life on the planet, and the spectacle of it all.” In all, Kennedy devotes over 2,400 words to praising McCarthy’s novel. Yet somehow Kennedy, and America’s literary elite, felt comfortable discussing a post-apocalyptic novel without mentioning any previous post-apocalyptic novels or the tradition this book exists within.

   That said, Kennedy and other critics are correct about The Road being a fictional masterpiece. Cormac McCarthy’s sparse yet intricate writing style and his deft blending of literary tropes and genres, including speculative fiction, Southern Gothic, and westerns, have created several of the finest novels of the last quarter century, including Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. In short, McCarthy is one of the leading novelists of our age in large part because he has no fear of crossing literary genres.

   The same can’t be said of the reviewers for major newspapers who instantly canonized his novel. While their assessment of The Road’s greatness is correct, it’s unbelievable that America’s leading critics could fail to mention the previous post-apocalyptic tales which influenced McCarthy’s book. Stories like “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison. Novels like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, The Postman by David Brin, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, and, most notably, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

   In fact, any literary critic who praised The Road without mentioning A Canticle for Leibowitz is either poorly read (inexcusable for any serious critic) or made a conscious effort to ignore one of the twentieth century’s most important books.

   None of the major newspapers that host book reviews mentioned these other post-apocalyptic books. For example, the reviewer for The Washington Post states that the novel is indebted to the Night of the Living Dead and Mad Max films (Oct. 1, 2006). The New York Times published two reviews of the book, neither of which mentioned any preceding post-apocalyptic novels (besides Kennedy’s aforementioned review, there was one by Janet Maslin). A review in Time Magazine does mention Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s lesser-known The Last Man and Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, about people in a bunker after the end of the world, but stops there (Oct. 1, 2006). At the time of The Road’s release, the only mentions of speculative fiction literature with regards to McCarthy’s novel by major media outlets were a James Poniewozik essay in Time Magazine discussing the current trend of post-apocalyptic stories on TV, film, and in fiction (Oct. 25, 2006) and a review by Alan Cheuse on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (7 Nov 2006).

   That said, there was one exception to this oversight–a  wonderful essay by author Michael Chabon, which appeared in The New York Review of Books almost six months after The Road’s publication. That Chabon wrote this essay is not surprising because he is one of the very few high-profile literary writers who actively supports speculative fiction–as will be discussed later in this essay. In his essay he even admits that dabbling in science fiction and genre tropes can be harmful to the literary credentials of most writers (Chabon 2007). Chabon also places The Road within the larger realm of post-apocalyptic literature, going so far as to quote Walter M. Miller, Jr., (author, in Chabon’s words, of the “seminal” A Canticle for Leibowitz) as saying that what most characterizes the post-apocalyptic genre is how a novel’s protagonists are haunted by the ghosts of the dead. But despite this deep understanding of how other books in this genre lead to The Road, and despite Chabon’s overall support of speculative fiction, in the end he’s afraid to make the final leap. This occurs midway through the essay when he flatly declares that The Road isn’t science fiction. Why? Because, in essence, The Road is better than that.

   So except for Chabon’s essay, the most influential media outlets in the country saw no need to discuss the words science fiction in relation to The Road (and since Chabon’s essay came out so long after the release of The Road, it is hardly counts as a contemporary review). This omission is all the more startling when one considers the large number of reviews in smaller newspapers and online which had no problem mentioning the lineage of previous post-apocalyptic novels which predated The Road. One conclusion we can draw is that the context of tradition was unknown to, or deemed irrelevant by, top-tier reviewers, though not necessarily by the entire literary world.

   What these elite reviewers chose to ignore is that A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Road share many of the same themes and tropes, including examinations of death, hope, life, violence, rebirth, and religion. In addition, both books are examples of breath-taking lyricism, with McCarthy’s sparse writing creating a building sense of dread while Miller’s more classical prose underscores the religious beliefs and lives of the monks who are the novel’s focus. Despite these similarities, the books do differ in approach. The Road presents the apocalypse through the relationship of a father and son, while A Canticle for Leibowitz combines a personal view of the end of the world with a larger discussion on how destruction and creation exist as dual driving forces of humanity.

   Another major difference between the books is that, of the two, Miller’s account is a more factual description of the personal and societal devastation which results from large-scale destruction. Perhaps this results from Miller’s role in the destruction of the Monte Cassino Benedictine Monastery (which, until its destruction, was the oldest monastery in the Western World). Miller, a tailgunner and radio operator during World War Two, helped deliver the bombs which pounded to rubble the work of 1,500 years. As Miller later stated, the penultimate scene of destruction in his book is a
parallel to the destruction of the Monte Cassino Monastery (Canfield 2006). Perhaps this perspective is why his novel not only covers the end of the world but also examines thousands of years of human history and civilization. Miller had seen how civilization-level destruction doesn’t simply affect individuals but also destroys the accumulated trove of human lives, ideas, and work.

   Unfortunately, people reading reviews of The Road in the top papers and magazines will never learn that any literary tradition of post-apocalyptic novels exists, let alone hear of a book of the caliber of A Canticle for Leibowitz. What’s even sadder, though, is that this is merely another case where literary critics, and by extension the larger literary establishment in the United States, have ignored the genres of speculative fiction while praising literary novelists who’ve used speculative fiction themes and tropes for their own purposes.

The U. S. Literary Establishment

   To understand why this happens, one should understand that, by and large, New York City is the heart of this country’s literary establishment. Not only is the city the location of influential book reviews (most notably The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books), influential magazines such as The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and many influential book publishers, the city also boasts a large and lively population of literary writers and readers. For the last century, this unique combination has made New York the country’s literary hub. If a novel isn’t successful with the New York establishment, it rarely has a chance of entering this country’s literary canon.

   This isn’t to say that there is a formalized process by which novels are accepted or rejected by the literary establishment, or that some uber-group of literary gatekeepers meets once a week to decide which authors they shall bestow their blessings upon. Instead, the literary establish is a cultural creation, a loose-grouping of people who have similar tastes and beliefs about literature. As with all such human constructs, those who are in this cultural subgroup enforce certain norms with regards to what is accepted or taboo. And for the literary establishment, one central creed stands above all others: Genre writing is uniformly bad. The literary elite’s belief in this sense of genre writing’s “badness” is so strong that they’ve ignored
the fact that there is now as much good writing, and bad, in speculative fiction as in so-called literary fiction.

   In fact, the gap between speculative fiction and the literati has widened in recent decades. This divergence has been accelerated by the two major literary fiction trends of recent decades, metafiction and “small novels.” Metafiction is, at essence, fiction about fiction. This fictional form is laced with large amounts of irony and self-conscious reflection, with David Forest Wallace’s Infinite Jest being one of the best-known recent examples. As for the small novel, perhaps Pulitzer-Prize winner Gail Caldwell best described this type of fiction as the “myopic sensitive heart-rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel” (Birnbaum 2003).

   A common feature of both metafiction and small novels is that they both ignore the big themes of life–death, hope, dreams, good and evil, and so on–to focus on ironic comments about these issues (metafiction) or minute dramas of personal life (small novels). The problem is that, as suggested by the previously mentioned decline in literary novel sales, many readers don’t respond to this type of fiction. As Caldwell herself states, she prefers “big, brilliant novels that people dare to imagine.”

   Despite the desire of readers for “big, brilliant novels,” the New York literary elite continually renew their hostility to genres which actually produce this type of fiction. Consider, for example, well-known literary critic A. O. Scott. Scott currently works as a film critic with The New York Times. Prior to embracing cinematic critiques, he reviewed books for Newsday and The New York Review of Books and continues to be heavily involved in the literary world; he wrote the introductory essay to The New York Time’s 2006 list of the top novels of the last twenty-five years. According to his biography, Scott has a degree in Literature (Big L) from Harvard and has served on the editorial staffs of Lingua Franca and The New York Review of Books (Scott biography, 2008). He is fairly typical of the type of elite book reviewer who has a self-professed deep and abiding love of literature (or Literature).

   Despite this, he has little patience with genre fiction. In a recent question-and-answer session with New York Times readers, he said, “With a few exceptions, I’ve never much enjoyed detective or espionage novels, science fiction or fantasy, largely because I often find the writing in these kind of books to be clumsy and uninspired.” However, he then added that when it comes to movies, he grows irritated when science fiction and other genre movies are dismissed just because they belong to those genres. “So when it comes to books I guess I can be a bit of a snob, whereas when it comes to movies I’m more of a populist–which I guess makes me something of a hypocrite. Oh well” (“Questions for . . . A. O. Scott,”  2008).

   While no one has done an in-depth analysis of the tastes of the country’s top literary reviewers, the fact that Scott can publicly dismiss most speculative fiction out of hand without any public uproar or career repercussions suggests his views are not too different from the rest of the literary elite.

   In addition, not all literary critics have ignored speculative fiction. For example, in the wonderful 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, a large number of genre books are listed alongside the traditional classics of Shakespeare, Twain, and Joyce, including Foundation and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Shining by Stephen King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, Neuromancer by William Gibson, and many more. It should be noted, though, that the editor of this book is part of the English literary establishment, so his views obviously differ from the literati on this side of the pond. But the listed books were selected by a large group of international critics, including several Americans.

   One American critic who hasn’t ignored speculative fiction is Harold Bloom, author of the influential 1994 book The Western Canon. While Bloom’s list naturally includes classic speculative fiction books by Mark Twain (Number Forty-Four: The Mysterious Stranger and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), he also adds several genre works in his list of books to add to the literary canon, including Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and John Crowley’s Little, Big.

   Bloom also has a simple answer to the question of which authors and works deserve to be canonized: “The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange” (quoted in Shindler). This is similar to what celebrated magic realism writer Gabriel García Márquez once said: “My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic” (quoted in Guardian.co.uk).

Instant Canonization: Beloved and Blood Meridian

   The literary establishment continues to dictate what books are in and out of the literary canon (which, for our purposes, are those books which form an integral part of Western civilization). The most recent attempt at this is The New York Times’s “What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?”

   To create this list, The New York Times’s Book Editor, Sam Tanenhaus, contacted several hundred “prominent writers, critics, editors, and other literary sages” and asked them to name the best novel of the last 25 years. While some critics and writers refused to take part, over 125 did. However, genre fiction authors, editors, and critics were almost totally absent from the list. Aside from Stephen King, none of the people on the list are known primarily for their work in speculative fiction (although a few have some connections, including Stewart O’Nan, who’s written science fiction and horror stories, and Michael Chabon, who flirts with and supports speculative fiction). After tallying the votes, the winner was Beloved by Toni Morrison. Another book in the top five was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

   What’s significant about the selection of Beloved and Blood Meridian to this exclusive list is that both books make full use of genre themes and tropes. For example, Beloved is a literary ghost story focusing on an escaped slave named Sethe who is haunted by the spirit of her two-year-old baby daughter (whose throat Sethe cut in an attempt to save the baby from being returned to slavery). Sethe calls the ghost Beloved because that’s what’s written on the baby’s tombstone.

   Ironically, the person who initially reviewed Beloved in the New York Times was Margaret Atwood, a writer best known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which won a number of awards including the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel. At the start of her review Atwood acknowledges what genre Beloved belongs to when she states “it must be said at the outset that [Beloved] is, among other things, a ghost story. . . .” Perhaps Atwood, who has a complex and very public love/hate relationship with genre fiction, threw in this disclaimer as a way to prepare the literary audiences of The New York Times for what they would find within the book’s covers. In any event, any genre connections of this book were played down and, generally, ignored, by the literary establishment.

   The same thing happened with Blood Meridian, an apocalyptic Western horror story mixed with ample degrees of history, fantasy, and supernatural violence. Most prominent among the book’s characters is one Judge Holden, a seven-foot-tall hairless albino who strides across the bloody landscape like a demon. Literary critic Harold Bloom, in his introduction to the novel’s Modern Library edition, called the Judge “the most frightening figure in all of American literature.” Blood Meridian straddles the line between reality and nightmare until the reader can’t tell what is true and what is fantasy. But one thing is certain: The book is whole-heartedly within the horror genre of writing.

   The fact that Beloved and Blood Meridian use genre fiction themes is acknowledged by critic A. O. Scott. In the essay accompanying The New York
list of top novels (“In Search of the Best”), Scott says it is almost impossible to write about the time periods in which Beloved and Blood Meridian are set “without crossing into the realm of the supernatural, or at least the self-consciously mythic.”

To boldly go where no literary writer has gone before . . .

   But why does the literary establishment love letting their writers mine the themes and tropes of speculative and other genre fiction while still rejecting it as a whole? The reason is that its almost impossible to understand today’s world without the themes and tropes commonly found in speculative fiction.

   For example, science fiction is, depending on whom one asks, “realistic speculation about possible future events” (Panshin 1968); the “literature of ideas” (Silvester, 2002 and many others) or of change (Trietel 2008); science fiction is writing of “improbable possibilities, fantasy of plausible impossibilities” (deFord 2008); and so on. Fantasy is alternately described as the literature of dreams, the soul, or longing (depending again on whom one asks). Horror focuses on fear, which as H.P. Lovecraft famously said is the oldest and strongest human emotion.

   Perhaps the most useful definition of the different genres which make up speculative fiction is given by Nancy Lebovitz:

    “Science fiction: the unknown is to be understood and thereby changed. Fantasy: the unknown is to be loved for its strangeness. Horror: the unknown is to be feared.” (1995)

In short, the common strand flowing through all these genres is dealing with the unknown. Lebovitz also mentions that with regards to literary fiction (which she calls “Naturalistic/memetic/realistic fiction”), “the unknown isn’t worth bothering with.”

   Society now changes at rates which couldn’t have been predicted only decades ago. The internet, mobile technology, globalization, terrorism–all of these technologies and trends have both revolutionized and unsettled human civilization, bringing societal gains along with new fears and uncertainty. If there is one constant in our lives these days, it is the unknown. And a literary fiction which ignores the unknown is unable to hold much sway over readers.

   Fortunately for the literary establishment, the best literary writers–like the best writers in every genre–always have one goal: to tell the best stories possible while also illuminating deeper truths. As a result, more literary writers than ever have forsaken the small novel and metafiction and followed paths laid out by writers in genre or using genre ideas.

   As proof of this, check out the 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories (BASS), long the annual guidebook to the literary establishment’s favored writers. The 2005 edition of the anthology was edited by Michael Chabon. As previously stated, Chabon is very supportive of speculative fiction and routinely employs genre settings and tropes in his writings, such as in his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about the lives of the creators of a Superman-like comic character, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is a literary alternate history.

   Chabon’s 2005 BASS anthology was widely praised as being the most successful edition of the series in years. The reason is that Chabon, as he states in his introduction, selected the stories based on their “entertainment value.” However, Chabon doesn’t believe that being entertaining means a piece of literature is junk. Instead, Chabon said he would “like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.”

   Sounds a lot like the goals of speculative fiction, a statement supported by the fact that Chabon selected works by speculative fiction writers like Kelly Link and Cory Doctorow for the anthology.

   Book publishers have also noticed that novels that combine genre elements with literary writing do well. As Gwenda Bond noted in Publishers Weekly in 2006, “Novels featuring prominent fantasy or supernatural elements have found an eager new audience in the literary world” (Bond 2006). She then lists successful literary fantasies like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian as examples. Why are these literary fantasies so popular? Bond answers this question by quoting Edward Kastenmeier, a senior editor at Pantheon, who says, “Our culture is exploring the literary margins more than in the past. Exposure to fantastic elements and technology in our daily lives has made people more accepting of them in literature.” She also notes that The New Yorker–“Always a bellwether for literary trends”–has in recent years begun publishing some genre fiction.

   Unfortunately, the genres are not getting credit for their victories and, despite winning battles, may still lose the larger literary war.

Forcing the U.S. literary establishment to acknowledge speculative fiction

   Now that some of the U.S. literary establishment embraces all things speculative, it’s a good time to step back and consider where speculative fiction now stands:

   Literary writers are now allowed to dip their toes all they want in the genre pool, but genre writers are still afforded little respect.

   These facts suggest that in the not-so-distant future, literary writers of all stripes could be freely writing what in earlier decades would have been dismissed as genre fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this if the previous contributions of speculative fiction writers are acknowledged.

   For example, the literary elite of the United States have long been more accepting of speculative fiction from overseas than genre works written by Americans. Writers of English speculative fiction like H. G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley have been accepted to various degrees by the U.S. literati.

   The same can be said for the speculative fiction of other cultures. Stanislaw Lem is considered a great Polish writer, not merely a writer of science fiction. Magic realism (i.e., fantasy), which dominates the literary genres in Latin American and parts of South America, is celebrated in this country. Other examples of this trend include the positive critical reactions to Neil Gaiman’s books and comics, to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and to the success of the Booker Award-winning Life of Pi by Yann Martel in this country.

   In all of these cases, this country’s top literary critics have praised these writers of speculative fiction, causing one to wonder if they have different standards for speculative fiction from overseas. If so, this is merely an updated version of how the U.S. literati didn’t like Faulkner until European acceptance and a Nobel Prize stamped him with respectability.

   There is nothing wrong with literary writers like Cormac McCarthy dipping into the genres of speculative fiction. If a writer can craft a masterpiece of fiction, then who cares what genre the masterpiece exists within? However, if the United States literary establishment allows their writers to embrace speculative fiction, then the literary establishment should likewise acknowledge the great writers of speculative fiction whose works preceded these current literary trends. In a similar vein,  if the U.S. literary establishment is open to speculative fiction from overseas, and some top critics already acknowledge the worth of the classics of speculative fiction, how can the establishment’s century-long dismissal of genre fiction be seen as anything but rank hypocrisy?

   What lovers of great speculative fiction must do now is simple: When deserving literary novels like The Road employ speculative fiction themes and tropes, praise the novels. If the novels are not deserving, condemn them. Either way, readers and critics should make sure to point out the previous works of speculative fiction upon which the novels built.

   As Tina Pohlman, editorial director of Harcourt’s Harvest imprint, said in Publishers Weekly about literary acceptance of speculative fiction, “Great writers have been incorporating fantasy, science fiction, and horror in their fiction for a very long time” (Bond 2006). Yes, they have–and now is the time to force the literary elite to acknowledge all great writers of speculative fiction.

* * *

Works Cited

      Atwood, Margaret. “Jaunted by Their Nightmares.” The New York Times, September 13, 1987.

      Birnbaum, Robert. “Birnbaum v. Gail Caldwell: Interview of Pulitzer-prize winner Gail Caldwell.” The Morning News, September 30, 2003.

      Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” In Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. New York: Modern Library Edition, 2001.

      —-. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Bloom’s complete list of great books can be found here.

      Bond, Gwenda. “Fantasy Goes Literary: Novels with supernatural elements are finding a new readership.” Publisher’s Weekly, April 3, 2006.

      Canfield, Dave. “A Canticle For Walter M. Miller Jr.” Imagine ‘Dat!, accessed Oct. 23, 2006.

      Chabon, Michael. “Introduction.” In Best American Short Stories 2005 ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Houghton Mifflin, October, 2005.

      —-. “After the Apocalypse,” The New York Review of Books, Feb. 15, 2007.

      deFord, Miriam Allen. Quoted in Richard Treitel, “Science Fiction versus Fantasy,” accessed jan. 10, 2008.

      Guardian.co.uk. Special Report on Authors. The Guardian Unlimited, accessed Jan. 10, 2008.

      Kennedy, William. “Left Behind.” The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2006.

      Lebovitz, Nancy (1995). Quoted in Richard Treitel, “Science Fiction versus Fantasy,” accessed Jan. 10, 2008.

      Miller, Laura. “Review of Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis.” Salon.com, August 24, 2005.

      Panshin, Alexei Heinlein in Dimension, A Critical Analysis. Advent Publishers, 1968. Available online here.

      Scott, A. O. “In Search of the Best.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, May 21, 2006.

      —-. “Questions for … A. O. Scott” The New York Times web site, accessed Jan. 10, 2008.

      —-. A.O. Scott Biography, accessed Jan 10, 2008.

      Shindler, Dorman T. “Dan Simmons breaks down genre walls.” Science Fiction Weekly, Issue 181, accessed Jan. 10, 2008.

      Silvester, Niko. “The More Things Change: Science Fiction Literature and the New Narrative.” Strange Horizons, 25 November 2002.

      Tanenhaus, Sam, et al. “What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, May 21, 2006.

      Treitel, Richard. “Definitions of what Science Fiction is and is not,” accessed Jan. 10, 2008.

      Wyatt, Edward. “Literary Novels Going Straight to Paperback.” The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 2006.