Just a little note today. Not really tied into work—though that keeps progressing as normal—but more just a thought that’s been on my mind over the last few days.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth out there over the debate between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. Go find a writing or reading forum online, hang out there long enough, and you’ll see the topic come up. And there will be lots of back and forth on it, with one side usually gaining the upper-hand simply by virtue of the make-up of the board you’re on.
Point is, this is a debate that’s gone on for a long time, and one that is still at the forefront of reading and writing both. Sands, it’s part of the whole debate over the Hugos, since the sides are divided over what makes “good” fiction. One holds that it has to be “literary” and that the “genre fiction” the other suggests can’t possibly be good because it’s “genre” (and that is, for some, the end of the “discussion”).
Now, if you ask people what “literary” or “genre fiction” means, you’re going to get a plethora of responses, again based on what camp you approach, so with that in mind let’s set a little bit of context for my commentary today: I am specifically talking in response to the concept that “literary” fiction is the “intelligent and thought-provoking” fiction. The fiction that asks the tough questions or inspires moral philosophy … and on the other hand, genre fiction is just straight-entertainment fiction with no extra redeemable value, especially compared to literary work.
This might seem harsh, but this is actually pretty much exactly how you’ll see some people explain it. So, where am I taking issue?
Actually, not where you would expect. Granted, I could write a whole thing on how genre fiction can (and does) approach the tough questions, demands intelligent thought and reason, and present ideas (and when it comes down to it, most who disagree are either cherry picking their examples or of the mindset of “that doesn’t support the message and ideas I want,” which doesn’t help). I could talk about that, pull examples, etc. But I won’t. Not at this point.
No, instead, I’m going to tackle a different point. The idea that “literary” fiction is automatically intelligent and thought-provoking. Because this isn’t accurate. No, more accurate would be that it’s fiction that thinks it’s intelligent or thought provoking, written by someone who thinks they’re presenting something much more “intellectual” than it actually is. When it really isn’t … but they’re too “smart” to do the research to know otherwise.
Case in point: I read this year a whole collection of “literary” works; I was given several collections of award-winning ones for a birthday. And again and again I was shocked by not just the lack of research and basic common sense on display, but by even the lack of basic knowledge of things like “science” that these literary works displayed. One story, for example, was trying to present itself as a critique of society. It did so by setting itself “after the end.” The government had collapsed, and people were losing all their technology. The message of the story was “Technology has removed us from nature” alongside “technology has given us violence, and that makes it bad.”
Yeah, fairly psuedo-intellectual. Or wanting to be, anyway.
Still, it could have been a decent story (and mind you, this was a story that had won awards), if not for some hilariously bad basic science that permeated the story.
For instance, the main character explains that computers and everything have all stopped working in the last six or so years since the government fell, and now only one remains working in the small town they have. No one can charge anything anymore, and everyone’s just dumped their tech.
Why? Because the copper wires rusted.
Pause for a moment, if you will, and think about that one. Or, if you don’t know the answer to the question, Google whether or not copper rusts.
It doesn’t. Which should have been obvious to the writer. But no, they went on and on about how copper rusting was what did in all the electronics once no one could buy new ones.
And it got worse. Again, this is a piece of award-winning literary fiction. The book went into detail about how people were surviving in their new “agricultural” society by returning to farming and hunting practices. Except … holy cow, as someone who grew up on a freaking farm, it couldn’t have been more ill-put if the author had talked about onions growing on trees.
It was awful. Factual errors everywhere. At one point, a main character talks about wanting to go hunting, but waiting until the next day because if they get their prey (moose, I believe), they have to kill it early in the day or they’ll be forced to leave all the meat behind at the end of the day when they come back, as they won’t have enough time to butcher it. They also comment that they’re down a man, so they won’t be able to carry all the meat back anyway, since there’s snow.
Sleds, people! Wooden sledges! We had this figured out five-thousand+ years ago!
And this is where I run into issues with a lot of “literary” fiction. When it’s set in contemporary times and doesn’t step outside of the little box the author lives in, it’s usually not bad (though maybe a little melodramatic). But for a style of literature that’s often touted as the “intelligent” form of such … it’s not. Basic facts (like copper and its inability to rust) are wrong. The story goes outside the box the author knows (which apparently in some cases is a very small box indeed) and then things just go off the rails. No research is apparent anywhere, the basics are all sideways … and this is the “intelligent” writing that’s supposed to make you think.
Well, it makes me think, all right. Just not in the way the author expects. I’m not nodding and thinking “excellent point” or “that’s so insightful.” Not when basic science or facts of life are completely wrong.
Which, in my opinion, really lowers the value of “intellectual” quite a bit.
What’s sad about this is I could see myself enjoying more “literary” works. The writing is more tell, sure, and more purple, but sometimes that’s pretty good purple. Sometimes there’s some neat ideas buried in there.
But my issue is that they are buried in there. It’s like “literary” writers can’t be bothered to do the most basic of research. And that pushes me away. Back towards genre fiction, where, despite not being the “intelligent” fiction choice, the science is real, the facts are usually real (or pretty close), and even when I’m reading about fantasy kingdom of some kind, said kingdom is actually laid out like a real government and civilization would be. As opposed to the “literary” version, which comes off feeling like Disney-mythology in comparison.
It just keeps pushing me away. Especially with all the battles over how “literary” fiction is the “superior” fiction, or the more intelligent, or the more meaningful, etc. I just can’t take a story seriously that can’t grasp basic parts of life, like how a car works. Or a TV. Or science.
Genre fiction breaks these all the time, but at least it explains it. You want copper to corrode? There’s probably a story in genre fiction for that … but it’ll have the explanation be nanites. Not just “That’s science?” with no research done.
So, at the end of the day, each and every time I pick up a “literary” work, I find myself being pushed away. I can’t trust an author to offer societal ideas, concepts, or messages when they can’t get the basics of how a phone works correct, after all. To me, that just smacks of someone who thinks they’re smart, and wants to be smart, perhaps even wants everyone to look at them and see how smart they are … but is unquestionably demonstrating with their work that they’re not nearly as intelligent as they think they are.
The only people they will impress will be the others who are just as in the dark as they are.
Copper doesn’t rust, people. If you want to write “intellectual” fiction, do the blasted research.
Until then, you’ll keep pushing people away.