When someone starts talking about literature, the image that comes to mind is one of old, musty books written by guys such as Balzac, Turgenjev and Dostojevski, to name but a few in that pantheon. It also conjures, or should I say dredges up, memories of dull, boring books that school systems everywhere force on everybody in the mistaken belief that such material constitutes ‘education’. My theory is that there must be a sadistic unfulfilled little individual in a basement somewhere at each Education Department gleefully picking over works, discarding anything that might have a shred of reader appeal, selecting books that are guaranteed to cause all those who read them permanent psychological damage. Worse, I was required to analyze these nightmarish creations and get into the mind of the sadistic characters in order to understand them, supposedly broadening my own mind, and as a bonus, get ‘educated’ … and pass that exam. Egad! I shudder at the thought of what I went through even now. Surely this must come under the category of cruel and unusual punishment and mistreating children. Needless to say, since then my sanity has always been in question.
The operative word about literature is that it is supposed to be old and weighty. What current critics revere so much is not prose that inspires or touches the soul, but convoluted ramblings that starts nowhere and ends nowhere. They shudder in horror at works by popular writers such as, dare I whisper it, Tom Clancy. Personally, I don’t think much of his stuff myself, except for his first two books. But his efforts made him enough money so he could afford to have his very own personal tank parked in his front yard – a defense from his critics perhaps? Is his stuff literature? It is always useful to remember that, unable to create anything themselves, critics despise all those who can. Talk about getting into someone else’s mind!
Closer to home, take some of the science fiction’s greats such as Roger Zelazny, Stephen Baxter or Greg Bear. Is their stuff literature? If you want ‘old’, what about Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein? If one of them submitted their works to a publisher now, it would never get past the slush pile. By currently accepted stuffy standards, science fiction is not literature. To meet with a critic’s approval, you have to be either dead, old and decrepit, poor, or all of the above. With these criteria, maybe my books will become literature one day. I read The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric, a Nobel Prize winner for literature. Gods, the stuff is so awful. If this is literature, I am happy never to write any. By now, you may have gotten an inkling that critics don’t exactly give me a warm fuzzy.
Okay then, what is literature anyway? Webster’s tackles it like this:
a) All writings in prose or verse of an imaginative character.
b) All such writings having permanent value, excellence or form, etc.
c) All the writings of a particular time, country, etc.
d) All the writings of a particular subject.
If it was really so clear-cut, why does it take four definitions? Take your pick where you think Balzac and his crowd fits in, then look at science fiction as a genre. What we think of literature today has a certain tonnage about it, because in the 19th century a book had to have so many pages before a publisher would even deign to look at it, no matter what the content. I can imagine what a modern editor would do to War and Peace if I submitted it under a nom de plume. Probably a tick somewhere in a form rejection letter if I’m lucky – ‘Good effort, but not quite right for us’!
Let’s not confuse the issue between literature and what constitutes good writing, for the two can be often mutually exclusive. The latter has firmly established rules in English grammar, whereas the former, I suggest, is a subjective academic, or perhaps political?, interpretation. The four definitions, remember. A good science fiction story with strong characters and a well-developed plot, and that something which makes your soul soar when you read it, may end up being popular at most, but would it be literature under current guidelines? Not in your lifetime. But looking at Webster’s definitions, why not?
Why the hell should we worry whether science fiction is literature, anyway? Getting that quarterly royalty check represents a far more substantial recognition than any critical acclaim accompanied by a dry pat on the back, right? You cannot bank critical acclaim. The EPPIEs? You’ve almost got me convinced, but the rub there is that they are not mainstream – whatever that means. Instead of talking literature, should the discussion then be about literary writing? The same thing? Not at all. Remember what I said about subjective interpretation. But literary writing?
We have all seen books that make out skin crawl and set us to thinking of unscrupulous agents, rotten publishers and evil marketing departments. My stuff is just as crappy as the next guy’s. Why then can’t I make it into print! Right? Banks and publishers, I just love hating both. But I am digressing. With imagination, grammar and Webster’s definitions, I submit that it is not only possible to produce science fiction as literary writing, but that it is also a necessary first step and a precursor to creating literature, regardless of whether it will ever be recognized as such. Our readers deserve nothing less. I also suggest that those writers who do not believe in this are destined to fall by the wayside, ending up in the rejection slush pile – unless they meet one of those rotten publishers or unscrupulous agents. Know of one? How do you go about writing with a literary bend? Hah! That is another story and I don’t have time to write a how-to book.
So, where am I with all this? Presenting a purely personal interpretation, literature is either old boring stuff, or new boring stuff that happened to win the Booker Prize. But us sci-fi writers have the Hugo and Nebula awards, so it’s not all bad. Science fiction, or any other genre for that matter, cannot hope to be recognized as literature given the crop of current closeted critics. But we can beat the game by producing literary writing that will be widely read, an objective that is worthy in itself and one to be vigorously pursued by all writers.
Send me that check and I’ll tell you how to go about it. And I’ll criticize your book for free as well!
~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award.
Do you agree with the points Stefan raised?
How do you view science fiction writing?
Do you differentiate between hard sci-fi and fantasy?