Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? poses a familiar problem, asked countless times over many years, and always likely to reappear in the run-up to the Man Booker prize (judges were announced back in November, longlist will land in July). Unfortunately, it is an uninteresting question, badly put. Damien G Walter asks whether speculative fiction can ever "receive the critical recognition accorded to their literary cousins", and he conflates this lack of recognition with a lack of success in garnering gongs for literary fiction. Lack of critical kudos is "a fact most evident in" SF not achieving the success in "the major literary awards, not least the Man Booker prize." The same question was asked by Kim Stanley Robinson, back in September 2009, when he accused the Man Booker judges of "ignorance" in neglecting science fiction, which he called "the best British literature of our time".

Years back, Ian Rankin made the same plea for crime fiction to receive the Man Booker's approbation (Crime writers are denied prizes by literary snobs, says Rankin). And he's continued to grumble about it ever since. Acres of newsprint, TV series, sales in the hundred of thousands via a loyal and vocal and intelligent (and ever-growing) readership is not, it would seem, enough. Crime fiction, like speculative fiction, wants the distinction, indeed the eminence, granted to literary fiction by prizes. Their own prizes are not enough (for SF, e.g. the Hugo, the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick and the Arthur C. Clarke; for Crime, see this wikipedia list), what they want to win is literary fiction prizes.

This is a very curious thing. There are often criminals in speculative fiction (China Mieville’s The City and The City is a hard-boiled SF novel), but I don't see the SF crowd clamouring to be awarded the CWA Gold Dagger. Why, then, the lack of self-confidence? Why the angst? Why does one genre (SF) want to win the awards handed out to another (literary fiction)?

Ah! Well, therein lies the rub. Damien G Walter, like Kim Stanley Robinson and Ian Rankin before him, and countless others who make the plea for 'SF to be taken seriously', has bought into the biggest myth around -- one propagated by publishers, authors and the media at large -- that Man Booker fiction isn't a genre, and that it is synonymous with Literature. SF doesn't really want to win literary fiction prizes, it wants to win literature prizes, and its planet-sized blind spot is thinking that the Man Booker Prize is such.

I've always thought that Plato's theory of Forms has a wonderfully SF-feel to it. The world we see is a mere reflection of an alternative universe, and it is that alter-space that is really real. Here on our own tiny planet, spinning slowly next to a dying sun, what we think of as real, true, solid is illusion. The Ideal, the Real, is out there. But glimpses, suggestions -- ghosts of the Real, if you will -- haunt the everyday, with the Forms making palpable what we think of as real, supporting its gossamer, embodied insubstantiality and giving the corporeal a vestige of solidity.

I have a similarly Platonic notion about literature. We see what literature is through those books that nearly measure up to our Ideal of it, and that have plotted out the topography of the space that it could or should inhabit. Shakespeare shows us that a poet's ear for language and a gourmand's relish for words is vital; Dante that the demotic can stand for the divine; Beckett that the absurd, relentless quotidian needs minute examination, to show us its heartlessness and humour, its pain and pathos; Proust that literature begins to discover itself only in pursuit of ineffable time, ever a fragment, detail after detail failing to stop the sand running out of the hourglass...

Literature is the Form that subverts what we think of as real. It is not is the pomposity of an Ian McEwan, the priggish politics of a Monica Ali, the smug, sub-Bellovian comedy of a Martin Amis. Genre fiction, as pleasing and entertaining, as comforting and exhilarating, as it most certainly can be, merely affirms the real. At best, it only shows us what we already know.

Literature is always more than this. An excess, a supplement. It is Real, and it is out there. And SF should reach for it by writing towards it, and not by clamouring for prizes given to those books that can claim nothing except complacent, establishment-pleasing credentials.

Readers Comments

  1. On this issue you should see Adam Roberts doing some number crunching on the Booker prize here: - and note his conclusion on genre...
    (Adam Roberts is the SF author who Kim Stanley Robinson said should have won the Booker in 2009 in the article linked to above - incidentally, Roberts' 'New Model Army' from last year is excellent.)

  2. Ha! Very nicely put. Of course you'll have to rewrite this same post next year around the same time.

  3. As you note, it's pretty obvious that Booker-esque literature is a genre in itself - and one of the less interesting ones at that. But then you fall into the trap of positing something else as the thing beyond genre, the ineffable, the ghostly entity that is Literature with a capital L. But you can't really escape convention, and therefore genre. Even if you're writing against convention, the convention is there in the negative, necessary so that people can recognise that you are in fact working against it. Open any book by Beckett, Joyce, Proust etc., and you will be aware after only a sentence that what you're reading is not crime, romance, Booker or whatever, but it's a particular type of literature we call Literature, not a platonic form but a concrete historic practice of artist-intellectuals working in the 20th century West, and bound by all sorts of conventions (one of which is to subvert Form). This desire to seek what is "outside" and "beyond" any particular set of cultural practices seems to me not only doomed to failure but also doomed to sterilise and "establishment-ise" the very things it is trying to elevate. Let's forget literary metaphysicis and stick with the here and now, accept that everything is working either for against the grain of particular conventions and traditions, and from that perspective try to work out who is doing it in the most interesting way.

  4. Hi Joe, I agree with your argument up to a point. Yes, Beckett et al were working against previously dominating modes of literary expression (although my argument, here, wasn't for Modernism, as you hint) and, additionally, working inside a wider culture. None of us can escape context. But there is, I think, a quality in all artistic presentation that takes us beyond the best of its articulations by even its most competent practitioners. And at the point I'm left requiring "literary metaphysics". I'll happily accept "that everything is working either for against the grain of particular conventions and traditions" and that I should "try to work out who is doing it in the most interesting way". And beyond that I'd argue that each book should be taken on its own merits and judged by how well it is working through the challenges it sets itself. In that sense, each work is sui generis. But I cleave to a kind of essentialism after that, or I'm lost in an anchorless relativism. How good each book is at being (the best version of) itself or another may well keep me grounded, but it is literary solipsism by another name. The ineffable leaves me a little uncomfortable, but as all books are failures of one kind or another, I can only know what they are failing at if I reach beyond the definitions their failings might force me to accept.

  5. Joe C's self-satisfied commonsense is a good example of the reason why English literature has been an airless void for so long.

    "Open any book by" ... and it all returns to the cold dead hand of genre. Do you ever read when not on sentry duty? But we should remember that if an ass looks into a mirror, we shouldn't expect an angel to look out.

    "Literary metaphysics", which Joe C. wishes us to forget, is literature itself; i.e. a pleonasm.

    I'm reminded of Beckett on the mystics. "I like their their illogicality... their burning illogicality... that flame... that flame... that burns away filthy logic." We need writers with Beckett's and Bernhard's ambition to write the impossible despite what those who know better tell us. "What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell the truth and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth."

  6. Uninteresting response.If The Booker is only an award for literary fiction, it should be granted as much attention as there are readers for that genre...very little. But if literature wants to be more than a number of fragmented genres with speaking only to themselves, it needs awards that look beyond genre boundaries. The Booker could be that award. It's to everyone's loss that it fails to be.

  7. Mark - a small point. When Robinson let off his diatribe last year, part of his specific point was to contrast the "forward-looking" nature of "speculative" fiction with the "backward-looking" nature of historical fiction, in a year when the short-list was dominated by historical fiction. So his point had a little more wit than might be the norm for such broadsides (& befitting for a writer whose latest novel, published in that period, dealt with the flows of time between past & future).

    It's a slightly tired criticism - well, very tired, actually - that genre fiction tends not be stylistically experimental. Of course, neither does Booker fiction, for the most part (although Mantel's "Wolf Hall" explored the potential within historical narrative opened up by one particular stylistic experiment with real effectiveness).

    But putting that to one side, there's no question that contemporary s-f has some genuinely breath-taking writers, for whom exploration of stylistic spaces of possibility is a major part of their concern - M John Harrison being one who springs to mind immediately.

  8. Damien,

    Your article repeats a piece that gets written almost every year; the fascination with the Booker would seem to be your own. Perhaps you should grant it less attention? Unfortunately, in responding to such repetition one's frustration betrays a kind of interest that seemingly justifies the existence of the articles one is so galled about in the first place. So be it.

    Regardless, your comment, above, doesn't engage with what I've written at all and merely restates your wish that the Booker should include SF (and more). It shouldn't. But the more interesting question that should be developed here is: could a conversation about Literature occur that isn't a conversation about genre? It seems unlikely.

    Perhaps the fault is mine. Invoking Plato, speaking of the ineffable. Tedious of me, for sure. Onward to specifics then: what is it about Shakespeare, Dante, Beckett, Proust that makes them neither genre nor anti-genre, not literary but Literature? Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with winning the "ultimate accolade for many writers".

    Hi Robin,

    I don't doubt for one second that some SF can be "forward-looking", and I never claimed that it wasn't "stylistically experimental". Indeed, my point was more that SF, being potentially far more radical than Booker fiction, should continue to reach for the stars without need of its affirmation. As I wrote above, why this lack of self-confidence? Why the need even to want to be considered for the Booker? Because it thinks either that the Booker is a Literature prize (which it is not) or it thinks it should be considered 'literary'. But literary is just a genre, so it makes as much sense for SF to win a literary prize as to win a crime prize. Which is no sense at all.


  9. great essay, on the money, and what a letter. Bravo, Mark.

  10. I think one of the things SF writers may be objecting to is the very phrase 'literary fiction', which suggests a monopoly on 'literariness', and implies that writing which falls outside this idiom is somehow 'unliterary'. The problem here is that 'literary' has become a euphemism for a commitment to some variety of psychological realism (the occasional postmodern deconstruction notwithstanding), adhering to a 19th-century value system which equates verisimilitude with aesthetic/intellectual merit.

  11. Stephen Mitchelmore, I'm not entirely sure why my post is an example of why English literature is an airless void, as I'm not English or even British. For me, the obsession with genre on all sides of the debate - those who think it should be in the Canon, and the gatekeepers who won't allow it - is arid and a dead end. If everything is genre, then in a way nothing is genre and the problem melts away. We're just back to books. We can see that Simenon's Dirty Snow is one of the outstanding novels of the mid-twentieth century, regardless of its genre description. If we're so motivated, we can even join the dots between Beckett's Moran and the crime novels that Beckett apparently avidly read. As for "literary metaphysics", it seems to me that Beckett's work, and specifically his trilogy, is one long disavowal of the whole notion of metaphysics.

  12. Until we have a definition of what "literary" is supposed to mean it's a bit difficult to have this debate. Yes, we might be sure that when we pick up an Agatha Christie or an Isaac Asimov we're reading "genre" rather than "Literature", but it's more complicated than that. The boundaries are continually changing. Were Austen or Dickens considered "Literature" at the time? In fact the novel itself was not really considered "Literature" for a good part of the 19th century. Even Shakespeare was writing for a mass audience and probably not really considered Literature until after his death. But if the marker between 'Literature" and "non-Literature" is forever shifting, one constant is that there is indeed such a marker, which ultimately seems to serve a social rather than a "literary" role.

  13. Ah well. I'm glad you found some food for thought in the piece Mark, whether you agree with its intent or not. Apologies for the grumpy response.

  14. Joe C writes: "As for "literary metaphysics", it seems to me that Beckett's work, and specifically his trilogy, is one long disavowal of the whole notion of metaphysics."

    You misunderstand my point. Writing itself is metaphysical whether Beckett disavowed it or not.

    And whether you're English or not makes no difference if it characterises the problem in RSB's home country.

    But I agree that the obsession with genre is a dead end, but that is precisely why genre fans like genre. It's safe. It opens no uncanny windows except within the confines of the content, nothing beyond is threatened and the status of the work itself and the whole enterprise is left unquestioned. Hence the focus on social, scientific and technological speculation. While one may admire and enjoy a genre novel, this should not be confused with the experience of discovering Beckett or Proust for the first time. Not because they're part of a canon but because (as Benjamin said in his essay on the latter) they dissolve a genre and unwittingly create a new one.

    Actually I think there's a fundamental blind spot that means genre and "literary" fiction fans really don't experience literature in the way that leads Mark to write what he does above, demonstrated by the wilful misreading, logical fallacies and the army of straw men offered in response to it.

  15. Stephen Mitchelmore: if Beckett's work is a disavowal of metaphysics, then it is implicitly a disavowal of writing as metaphysics. "Literary metaphysics" is only tautological if we accept your own idiosyncratic definition of literary writing.

    Your characterisation of genre writing as safe and opening no uncanny windows is really true for all forms of writing, "literary" or otherwise. The vast majority of writing is safe, only a very small proportion opens uncanny windows. But within that tiny proportion you'll also find genre novels. When Simenon talks about the "sudden sensation of the unreality of the environment, of people, of the outside world, which my characters experience," he's talking about that uncanny moment that you'll find in his fiction, or in that of Patricia Highsmith, to give another example. If all art is conventional almost by definition (otherwise it is meaningless chaos), then the only real difference with genre is that it is even more tightly conventional. But that can paradoxically open up greater possibilities for the uncanny moment. Our conventional expectations can be more easily disturbed where the collective illusion is the strongest. Crime fiction and film are full of those moments where someone steps out of the magic circle and the world dissolves into a series of signs that never quite cohere. It's interesting in fact that the world of cinema doesn't seem to have this problem with genre, and people are quite content to say that both Hitchcock and Tarkovsky are in the canon, regardless of the fact that one is "genre" and the other supposedly isn't.

  16. "The vast majority of writing is safe, only a very small proportion opens uncanny windows. But within that tiny proportion you'll also find genre novels."

    I'd suggest that the apparently "genre" novels in that tiny proportion are not what is meant by "genre" here. Yes, there may, for example, be apparent detective in that allotment, as Molloy is a kind of detective story, but they are not generic "detective stories". Genre partisans often seem to get defensive when it's suggested that a given novel "transcends" its genre by becoming literature, but it seems to me that that's because they're so often responding to the kind of praise pseudo-literary genre hybrids too often get. When in fact the distinction Mark is trying to make is that even most so-called "literary" fiction is not Literature; even those novels must be something other than generic "literary fiction", transcend the literary conventions (or sidestep or ignore them) to be literature. Because this sentence of yours is surely undeniable: "The vast majority of writing is safe, only a very small proportion opens uncanny windows."

    And yet we have Booker and Whitbread and Pulitzer and NBA and NBCC and Orange, etc, prizes, and long and shortlists, every year.

  17. A nice counterpoint to this discussion in a recent post by M John Harrison:

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