The Stigma of Genre Fiction
Like most children of my generation I was raised on a steady diet of the impossible.
From Star Wars to Disney, Narnia to the Brothers Grimm, all of my exposure to movies and literature was within the realm of the fantastical. As I grew and (allegedly) matured, my taste for these things dwindled in the shadow of new cultural discoveries such as Nirvana and Allen Ginsberg, though I still wore my love for Star Wars on my sleeve.
College was the real turning point. As I worked through syllabi loaded with Dostoyevsky and Joyce, my taste for science fiction and fantasy was on the brink of extinction. I derided former lifelong favorites like Stephen King as mass market garbage and refused to touch any form of media that didn’t warrant a thesis-level analysis. In a word, I became insufferable.
After graduation that attitude thankfully disappeared, due in large part to the Harry Potter series. After many of my peers whose opinion I greatly respected began to gush about the just-released “Half-Blood Prince”, I bit the bullet and picked up the series’ first volume, to win the argument if nothing else. Instead I surrendered my pretensions.
Genre fiction has always been the ghetto of literature, to paraphrase perennial legend Ursula K LeGuin.
This stigma can likely be traced directly to the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. Titles such as “Weird Tales” and “Amazing Stories” famously pumped out scandalous tales of aliens and terrors on the cheapest paper possible to take as much pocket money from American youth as possible.
Their lurid covers with buxom women at the mercy of fanged beasts hardly screamed timeless classics, so this academic ostracism can, to a degree, be forgiven. Hidden between those outlandish covers were the seeds of relevancy, though. Fritz Leiber, A.E. Vogt, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov are just a few of the writers who got their start in those inauspicious pages.
What has been overlooked until recently is that science fiction and fantasy possess an ability not found in any other literary subdivision: the license to create an imaginary scenario to present a real world problem in a new, objective way.
When a conflict is put into a “social vacuum” by virtue of an imaginary and impossible setting (an interstellar war, a boarding school for magical children, etc.), the audience is allowed to leave their preconceived notions at the door and evaluate the situation on its own merits.
This license is something the original Star Trek utilized many times. The series tackled subjects as heady as racism and rampant nationalism in an original, thought-provoking way by virtue of science fiction’s capacity for world building. Even the makeup of the cast was novel; the Enterprise’s bridge was a racial melting pot that gave audiences a glimpse of what a united, post-national world could look like. In that vein, the series also famously broadcast the first interracial kiss on American television, which was shared between William Shatner and Nicole Nichols.
In the novel “The Left Hand of Darkness” by LeGuin, a human envoy is sent to the planet Winter to treat with an alien race that undergoes physical changes to their sex several times throughout their life. This ambisexual nature obviously influenced their society’s development to a large degree, and the human envoy’s attempts to navigate their social and cultural mores successfully are the bulk of the story.
As the envoy grapples with understanding a society with a literally alien sense of gender and sexuality, the reader does as well. The planet Winter then becomes an analogue for sexual minorities here on Earth, allowing the audience to (ideally) reconsider their views on the subject.
In the 1980s another branch of fantastical literature, the superhero comic, came of age, thanks in large part to Frank Miller and Alan Moore.
In 1986 Miller wrote “The Dark Knight Returns,” the comic arc that essentially codified the modern iteration of Batman: a dark, tortured soul completely divorced from the loveably campy Adam West incarnation. While this depiction of Batman/Bruce Wayne was revitalizing, something as equally groundbreaking was Miller’s portrayal of Gotham City’s citizenry. Numerous times throughout the story the reader is shown little vignettes of day-to-day life in the crime-beleaguered city. We see what the average person thinks of Batman and his vigilantism, and their reactions to it aren’t always what we would assume. These meditations on justice and civil obligation transcend the comic panel.
Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” which also began its run in 1986, could very well be the world’s first postmodern comic, which splices together the typical tropes of the superhero genre with a large dollop of historical revisionism. The heroes of this world (aside from Dr. Manhattan) aren’t super, for one; they are gifted but still genetically normal people who are actively emulating an earlier generation of heroes.
These Watchmen accomplish amazing feats, most notably by bringing about an unequivocal victory in the Vietnam War. While the title of the series obviously calls to mind the prescient question, “Who watches the watchmen?” and ruminates on its answer masterfully, there is another layer of meta-commentary at play.
The heroes in “Watchmen” are very much portrayed as immature and emotionally stunted. In essence, they’re fanboys living out their dreams, donning the masks of the previous generation’s heroes.
And (spoiler alert?) it turns out they just aren’t very effective at playing hero when the chips are down. Their idealism is weak medicine versus the complexities of a true global crisis. And yet another criticism of the hero archetype is revealed—what good are they when they’re put up against a situation beyond the reach of their fists?
To paraphrase another genre giant, Gene Wolfe, all novels are fantasy, some are just more honest about it than others. Thankfully, science fiction and fantasy are beginning to garner the cultural cache and legitimacy they have deserved for decades. As our world continues to catch up with the predictions of these writers, the literary elite’s dismissal of these works will become harder and harder to justify.