The world lost one of the great SF/F writers this week with the passing of Ray Bradbury. When Ray started out in the late 1940s, science fiction and fantasy were considered kiddie fodder and escapist fare. Now, some 70 years later, some of our great contemporary literature comes from these genres. It was Ray who made sci-fi about more than just ray guns and squishy aliens, just as his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien brought epic fantasy out of the realm of mere fairy tales.
It’s safe to say that Bradbury’s stories and novels are truly part of true Literature (TM), but there’s still a lot of debate out there as to what else actually should be deemed such. A couple weeks after The New Yorker gave genre writers a pat on the head for being so cute and clever — with all the backhandedness and condescention only said magazine could muster — The New York Times ran a Room for Debate entitled “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” The concern was that fiction in general was becoming “more entertaining and less serious.”
Ummm…yeah. Look, fiction is entertainment, period. I don’t care if its War and Peace or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, people read fiction to be entertained. Now, I would agree there that folks tend to read things that comfort rather than challenge them; just look at the rise of partisan news on MSNBC and Fox News as examples of a culture that wants to be reaffirmed rather than confronted. But I’d also agree with another debater in the piece who noted that people can’t be coerced into reading the really good, literary stuff.
The piece that really caught my eye in the Room for Debate was by James Dunn, a professor emeritus of English and a science-fiction author and fan. He notes that sci-fi has always been at the forefront of imagination, finding new expressions of the human condition through events and settings that might happen. And you know what? A lot of the books and writers he cites in his piece are surely entertaining, even as they challenge the reader’s preconceived notions.
Now, as a genre author, I would not be so bold as to claim the mantle of Literature for Spacebuckler. My novel is pure escapist fare if there ever was some. And yet…as I wrote it, I found that the setting and plot and character development naturally prompted consideration of greater themes. I ended up exploring corporatism, colonialism, war, power, the concepts of honor and duty, and a wide range of human emotions…in addition to crashing a Royal Navy frigate into the planet Mars.
Yet both the thematic elements and the ship-into-planet-thing are ultimately there to entertain, and I think that’s where we fall down in this whole literary debate. Thought-provoking literature that features exceptional writing can happen in any genre, and we read it not because it’s “good for us,” but because we are entertained by it. Otherwise, such fiction would be akin to eating our vegetables — distasteful, but something we feel we must do because it’ll help us grow on an intellectual, emotional and moral level.
So to the folks out there who feel that today’s novels and literature skew towards escapism and entertainment, I say…duh. Of course they do. They always have. It’s the books that explore the human condition and provoke new ideas — while still being a great read — that will stand the test of time and become part of Literature. So maybe we shouldn’t be in such a rush to decry the state of modern fiction today (something that every generation seems to enjoy decrying), and instead just be happy that in an era of streaming video and Angry Birds, there are still plenty of people eager to read.