6

On the inside jacket of my copy of His Master's Voice, there is a short biographical blurb about the author, Stanislaw Lem. The blurb contains the following sentence:

Originally trained in medicine, he began his writing career in the 1940's, rapidly developing into one of Europe's most prolific, brilliant, and admired writers, and elevating science fiction from genre to literature.

Another example of this use of the word genre comes from Larry McCaffery's The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction:

Working as he did on the treadmill of genre SF, Dick never wrote a single work which can be termed a "masterpiece,"

What does the phrase "elevating science fiction from genre to literature" mean? What is the distinction between genre and literature, and is such a distinction useful?

  • 1
    This has been debated in a number of places in recent years by people who actually write literary fiction and/or genre fiction. I don't think there's much we can add to this debate, although an answer giving various links and summarizing their arguments would be a great resource. – Peter Shor Aug 8 '17 at 14:49
  • Useful to whom? – BESW Sep 7 '17 at 4:31
  • @BESW that's probably a good thing to talk about in an answer :) – user111 Sep 7 '17 at 4:32
  • I think that McCaffrey's phrase "working on the treadmill of genre" just means that publishers of science fiction in those days expected you to produce books so rapidly that he never had time to really polish any of them. (I don't know whether this was actually true for Dick, but it might have been.) So I don't think it's comparable to the first quote, which seems to me very contemptuous of genre. – Peter Shor Nov 18 '18 at 14:11
1

"Literature" in this context is used to connote what may be termed the genre of "Literary Fiction" as opposed to mere "Genre Fiction".

The distinction is exceptionally useful in the contemporary landscape to distinguish work with deeper merit (i.e. possessing more than mere entertainment value.)

  • "Elevated beyond genre" is a way of connoting that a "genre" novel has social, philosophical, or literary value, as opposed to mere entertainment value.

This idea of literary elevation of genre fiction is reserved for relatively few genre authors--in speculative fiction those names include Swift, Orwell, Dick and Lem, although this list may extends beyond such Olympian heights.

The same type of "transcendence of genre" is afforded to comic book authors such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who elevated the "comic book genre" into the field of "literature".

The idea of dividing the medium into genres goes back to Plato, where such divisions were seen a useful and necessary.

  • Division of literature into genres is useful because it's allows practitioners and scholars to separate the forms in order to discuss, analyze, and create.

  • In the modern context, genre distinctions are a powerful marketing tool, allowing publishers to target consumers predisposed to specific types of content.

The problem with art is subjectivity, and everyone has their favorite authors. Joy derived from a work is legitimate, and notwithstanding of the "elevation" of the work. But a much stronger case for elevated work can be made for authors like Swift, Orwell, Lem and Dick.

From my perspective, as a Classical Scholar and Mythologist, all fiction was "genre fiction" before the modern literary fiction movement. This extends from Gilgamesh and Homer through Dumas and Jack London.

In many ways, speculative fiction is the most literary of the genres because the origins of speculative fiction, of which Swift is a paragon, is the facilitation of discussion of social issues that would be censured if made directly in context of contemporary society.

Thus Lem could use genre to be be subversive, avoiding the censure of overly literal bureaucrats who wouldn't catch the subtext, and this is a tradition which goes back to at least Homer, in that the Iliad was a heavily subversive work.

Further, genre opens the discussion of such topics to a wider audience than would normally be interested. (i.e. Hunger Games is probably more widely read, and at a much younger age, than treatises on information warfare and economic inequality.)


Another reason I find the terminology useful is to distinguish between genre authors who elevate the form (Lem, Dick) and literary authors utilizing genre (Murakami, Chabon). I'll read the work of the literary authors, admittedly superior stylists, but don't always find it as satisfying as the work of the pure genre writers, for which style is not a primary consideration. By contrast, of Cormac McCarthy I might say "He is a an author who transcends literary fiction to return it to its genre roots." (Possibly I am more attracted to McCarthy per my interest in fundamental ethical questions, the concept of the "personal code", and his allegorical approach.)

  • 1
    I think this answer could be improved by clarifying your definition of genre. The sentence "The idea of dividing the medium into genres goes back to Plato, where such divisions were seen a useful and necessary." doesn't really give much context. Also, I never said that I agree with McCaffery's assessment of Dick; I was just using it as an example of this particular use of the word "genre". – user111 Jul 31 '17 at 23:36
  • I didn't think you agreed with McCaffery, but merely wanted to call him out. (As one who has read and almost every Dick book, including his exegesis, and spent many years contemplating the cogent philosophy of empathy that is probably the core theme of his body of work, I never miss an opportunity to savage critiques from bloggers who I don't think have really studied and analyzed the body of work;) Thanks for the critique. I've amended the answer, hopefully to provide an actual answer! – DukeZhou Aug 1 '17 at 17:30
  • "All fiction was 'genre fiction' before the modern literary movement"? What genre was Charles Dickens? Anthony Trollope? William Thackeray? – Peter Shor Nov 28 '18 at 3:34
  • @PeterShor Dickens most successful work was a ghost story, but I agree that the writers you list are among the many pre-cursors of modern literary fiction. Novels themselves are a key innovation. (What I was referring to was narrative literature that pre-dates the novel.) – DukeZhou Nov 28 '18 at 17:11
  • 1
    There's a point somewhere when high-culture literary fiction (Finnegans Wake, in its most extreme) and popular fiction split. Clearly after Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and George Eliot, but before Henry James' and James Joyce's later works. And that's when genre started being seen as a lower form of art than literature. – Peter Shor Nov 28 '18 at 18:59
-4

Hard science fiction isn't for everyone. For one thing, it's hard to follow if you don't know much about science. The fiction too often gets left behind the science.

Literature, on the other hand, is intended for everyone. You don't have to be familiar with the tropes of a specific genre.

Lem wrote SF because the Soviet censors weren't sophisticated enough to catch the subversive ideas he hid inside the genre's conventions. He wrote for a general audience so they would read and understand. To do so, he had to put the fiction ahead of the science. He thus paved the way for soft SF.

A genre is a subset of fiction. A genre work can be good or bad, but it generally stays within a scope of traits. P.K. Dick applied the Beat sensibilities to SF and continued the development of soft SF, but he didn't write for a general audience.

Literature is any fiction that, for whatever reason, has received unusual attention. The arbiters of taste have elevated it to classic status. It's rare enough for general fiction to become literature, but it's astounding for a genre writer such as Lem to reach that height.

  • I'm sorry, but this answer is (1) contradictory, (2) not supported by any sort of evidence (e.g. sources), (3) incorrect, and (4) not very helpful. (1) you start out by saying "Literature, on the other hand, is intended for everyone." but then you mention that "Literature is any fiction that, for whatever reason, has received unusual attention. The arbiters of taste have elevated it to classic status." This is contradictory; is literature for everyone or is it an elite cultural work? – user111 Jul 31 '17 at 3:10
  • (2) "Lem wrote SF because the Soviet censors weren't sophisticated enough to catch the subversive ideas he hid inside the genre's conventions." This is true but simplified. Do you have any sources to back that statement up? (3) "He wrote for a general audience so they would read and understand. To do so, he had to put the fiction ahead of the science." Do you have any sources to back this statement up? More to the point, have you actually read Lem? Some of his fiction, such as His Master's Voice, is quite technical and difficult to understand. This isn't always the case, but... – user111 Jul 31 '17 at 3:12
  • This answer would be improved if you could back up all of its claims. This answer ignores the fact that I'm not specifically asking about Lem but about the use of the words "genre" and "literature". And this answer doesn't answer the second part of my question, which is "is such a distinction useful?" – user111 Jul 31 '17 at 3:13
  • Literature is not intended for anyone. Modern "literature" (or at least, the books the arbiters of taste designate as modern literature) is intended for the educated elite. At least, this article says the priests of high culture are dissing Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch because it's too popular. – Peter Shor Nov 27 '18 at 17:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy