Literary fiction as a subcultural genre

Science fiction blogger Charlie Jane Anders has literary fiction’s number. In a “rant” on the blog io9 (link via GalleyCat), Anders expresses some doubts as to whether science fiction stands to gain anything significant through its increasing literary respectability. It’s all well and good that literary writers like Michael Chabon have brought positive attention to science fiction of late, and have thereby introduced some literary-minded readers to the pleasures of the genre. But literary respectability, Anders argues, no longer equals mainstream cultural importance, nor offers any kind of guarantee of quality. Though some literary writers do become minor cultural stars, most will never gain the attention of anyone outside of the tiny subculture of little magazines and their dedicated readers. Science fiction writers face similar circumstances, only in a different subculture: for every Neal Stephenson or J.K. Rowling, there are numerous other writers whose works are highly valued only among the small but passionate community of science fiction readers.

Literary fiction, Anders argues, is nothing more (or less) than another genre, just like science fiction. Some literary writers are good at what they do, and others are bad, but none can really claim to be doing anything than writing under the influence of the aesthetic standards and strictures of a genre with its own rules and expectations.

In the post, Anders contrasts literary fiction and science fiction in order to highlight the genre characteristics of each. On prose style, for example:

Most science fiction stories and novels use language as a tool to get the story across. They’re usually written serviceably, but not sparklingly. There are usually way too many adverbs, too many passive sentences, and too much use of the verb “to be.” In literary writing, by contrast, there’s an obsession with prose style. Every sentence must dapple, like sunlight through a baboon’s toes in the jungle.

Some people prefer lapidary literary language; others have a taste for lean and functional prose, even if it does sometimes sacrifice elegance in favor of moving the story along at a rapid clip. Either way, it’s a matter of aesthetics—and what claim could literary fiction possibly have to inherent aesthetic superiority?

I love literary fiction myself, and I fully embrace its aesthetics. But I think Anders is absolutely right here: the subculture of literary fiction is very small (and getting smaller by the day), and definitely isn’t at the center of the world. Like it or not, the true center is probably something more like American Idol and Monday Night Football. This isn’t to say that literary writers (or for that matter, science fiction writers) aren’t producing great work, or that literary work isn’t important. But it isn’t important to everyone, and lots of people have perfectly valid reasons for finding other modes of creative expression more to their liking.

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2 Responses to “Literary fiction as a subcultural genre”


  1. 1 Jim Gill September 19, 2008 at 10:06 AM

    Just a story that popped into my mind as I read this post: I was in Upstate New York recently, and decided to visit the Cadence building, where the magazine, record label, and music distributor have their home. I was browsing through their selection of subcultural recordings (jazz of every stripe). In the next room, their receptionists were discussing the last nights American Idol. It made me smile.

  2. 2 goodreadings October 7, 2008 at 7:58 PM

    That’s funny. I know Cadence has been struggling lately, but maybe all free jazz needs in order to bolster its popularity is a talent show. It could be called “Skronk Idol.” And I’m sure they wouldn’t have any trouble finding a cantankerous and harshly opinionated jazz fan to serve as a judge.


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