Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Major and Minor: On Speculative Fiction as Canonical Literature

Hi all, unfortunately my PhD work has kept me from reviewing, but I will be back with reviews in 2021! I have a few essays to show for my time away, and the following essay is inspired by conversations around why speculative literature is not respected as a genre in the US literary world, particularly when teaching English literature. I hope you enjoy!

Major and Minor: On Speculative Fiction as Canonical Literature

Speculative literature is often cited and criticized for escapism, a critique used to dismiss much popular or “low” literature from westerns to romances. Indeed, the speculative literature that rises into a more literary market usually undercuts the idea of adventure for a slow or more meditative text, such as some of Samuel R. Delany’s work. That being said, all fiction is, at some level, escapist (even if not escapist to every reader’s taste), and plenty of canonical literary fiction features escape into adventure or romance, such as Ernest Hemingway’s work. This leaves the unreality—the otherworldly nature—of speculative literature as the main cause for it being labeled “low,” yet that becomes complicated by magical realism or Indigenous realism, suggesting that speculative literature might be less “low” literature and more a representation of a wider reality, as Ursula K. Le Guin said in her National Book Award Foundation Medal acceptance speech. 

Image of cover of Grendel by John Gardner
Ultimately, I argue that this otherworldly nature is why speculative fiction writers are rarely recognized as canonical literary writers whereas authors of other genres from mystery writers to historical fiction writers are recognized as canonical: their work takes place in some form of the real world, something recognizable if not familiar. This unreality of speculative literature does not support the nationalizing goal of American Literature, particularly when shaping the canon. As Delany argues, this familiarity reaches to the sentence level, so the literary reader already knows how to engage with the text, even if not in an accustomed genre. Yet, these readers are in the minority as the popularity of speculative literature continues to grow with each generation. Indeed, many canonical writers of American literature have written speculative fiction, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Mark Twain to Toni Morrison. Contemporary authors continue to blur the lines between speculative and literary genres. For instance, where does one shelve Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019)? Or Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado? John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) is often shelved in the speculative section, but the rest of his novels are in the literary section. As suggested by such authors, the separation by genre makes little sense, particularly among such important writers. Indeed, I believe that speculative literature should be included in the American literary canon as it has as much cultural relevance as a literary text even if not set in the real world. 

“Low” literature and popular culture has always been associated with the masses. Particularly with speculative fiction, the genre has grown from dime novels, followed by the pulp era of the mid-1900s. While different speculative writers have tried to separate themselves from this history (particularly during the Golden Age of Science Fiction when authors were trying to raise the genre’s status), it’s worth noting that Conan the Barbarian remains in the popular consciousness while the average person could not name a character from James Joyce. Yet, the canon values James Joyce over Conan. Fredric Jameson suggests that this gap cannot be overcome because speculative fiction has a “dialectical relationship” with high literature: 

It would in my opinion be a mistake to make the ‘apologia’ for SF in terms of specifically ‘high’ literary values—to try, in other words, to recuperate this or that major text as exceptional, in much the same way as some literary critics have tried to recuperate Hammett or Chandler for the lineage of Dostoyevsky, say, or Faulkner. SF is a sub-genre with a complex and interesting formal history of its own, and with its own dynamic, which is not that of high culture, but which stands in a complementary and dialectical relationship to high culture or modernism as such. (283) 

I would argue that, as part of the dialectical relationship, that speculative fiction undercuts the conditions of modernity and high culture. Certainly, literary writers have undermined and are undermining white supremacy and the heteropatriarchy, but less of those texts have been canonized in American literature. Whereas, the speculative canon—even a more conservative list—contains many novels and writers undermining the status quo, such as Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr./Alice Bradley Sheldon, Samuel R. Delany, William Gibson, Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. Due to these elements—working against canonical ideas, writing unfamiliar worlds, and a separate writing tradition—even the immense popularity of speculative literature would not afford it entrance to the canon, particularly when the nationalizing goal of creating and teaching the canon of American literature is taken into account. 

As Jameson argues, there are specific differences between speculative fiction and literary fiction.  Initially, there are the types of stories that can be told—though this is not a hard rule. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) could have been marketed as literary fiction in a different day, and, indeed, is treated as one of the most literary examples of speculative fiction. Following Delany, though, it should be noted that speculative fiction requires a different way of reading than literary fiction. In his essay “About 5,750 Words” (1978), Delany takes a semiotics approach to speculative fiction. He argues: “Any serious discussion of speculative fiction must first get away from the distracting concept of SF content and examine precisely what sort of word-beast sits before us” (15). To that end, he breaks down a sentence that could appear in a science fiction story to demonstrate his theory about the act of reading, which he describes as correcting a picture. He writes: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times” (5). He breaks down the following sentence word by word to demonstrate when the image corrected could no longer be realism: “The red sun is high, the blue low. Look! We are worlds and worlds away” (7). In Delany’s theory, the picture was not fully corrected until the word “low” transported the reader to a different planet, one with two suns. This example leads to one of his more well-cited critical thoughts: “‘The door dilated,’ is meaningless as naturalistic fiction, [….] As SF—as an event that hasn’t happened, yet still must be interpreted in terms of the physically explainable—it is quite as wonderous as [Harlan Ellison] feels it” (13). Therefore, a certain affect can be achieved in speculative fiction that cannot be achieved in literary fiction. 

Ultimately, Delany writes: “I can think of no series of words that could appear in a piece of naturalistic fiction that could not also appear in the same order in a piece of speculative fiction. I can, however, think of many series of words that, while fine for speculative fiction, would be meaningless as naturalism. Which then is the major and which the subcategory” (12)? From a stylistics approach, I agree with Delany that speculative fiction offers more sentence-level possibility than literary fiction. Indeed, other genres also meet this criteria for literary fiction—any sentence appearing in a western, mystery, romance, could also appear in a literary novel. But, if creativity was the main value of “major” literature, then certainly the lines would be redrawn. This issue speaks to larger question of why speculative fiction is not considered literary while other genres have been elevated, such as historical fiction. Because speculative literature has the potential—and often is—totally separate from reality, its unfamiliarity regulates it to a separate shelf. 

Cover image of Her Body and Other Parties
Indeed, literary writers that straddle the line between speculative and literary careers often play with this issue of language. For example, take Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017), which combines literary fiction and speculative fiction throughout, usually within a story. Yet, this collection
would be recognized as a literary offering (even if one of the previously published stories appeared in the genre magazine, Strange Horizons). That being said, her stories dip into outright speculative fiction, not even soft fabulism that authors like Karen Russell or Kevin Brockmeier achieve. In her short story “Inventory,” Machado switches mid-story from traditional literary fiction to science fiction, particularly dystopian fiction. Indeed, the format—a list of sexual encounters—would play better to a literary audience than to a speculative audience. Similarly, the slow pacing and lack of fantastical elements also suggests a literary purview. As the narrator reaches adulthood, the speculative element comes to light: “We watched as the newscaster vanished and was replaced with a list of symptoms of the virus blossoming a state away, in northern California” (Machado 36). Even this comment would not necessarily remove the story from the realm of literary fiction as an epidemic is certainly not a fantastical idea. Yet, this dip into low literature allows Machado to expand the range of her story, quickly settling it within a survival dystopia narrative familiar to speculative readers. Indeed, it’s the dystopian setting that turns the story from cheeky to moving. 

At first, the story’s structure intimates it will be a list of sexual encounters, each paragraph introducing who the narrator engages with, such as “Two boys, one girl. One of them my boyfriend” (Machado 33). After the virus begins spreading across the US, the narrator’s or characters’ movements are included. Early during the epidemic, she flees from people rather than the virus: “When [sex] was over and she was showering, I packed a suitcase and got in my car and drove” (Machado 37). Once she settles in Maine, others start coming to her: “One man. National Guard. When he first showed up at my doorstep, I assumed he was there to evacuate me, but it turned out he’d abandoned his post” (Machado 40). Many of these lines remain staunchly in realism, though comments about the narrator “check[ing] their eyes” or asking “how far behind the virus was” err toward the speculative (Machado 40, 41). Yet, readers familiar with the genre and tropes—such as the religious leader and her flock or the fact the narrator allows anyone near her hideout—can sense what will happen, which makes the final paragraph of the story even more moving as all three styles of narrative lists come together. First, a new character appears: “One woman. Much older than me. While she waited for the three days to pass [to demonstrate she was negative for the virus], she meditated on a sand dune” (Machado 43). The list structure means the narrator will have a sexual encounter with this person. Yet, as represented by this section being the longest, this woman is different.

Quickly they form a connection: “I couldn’t remember the last time I’d smiled so much. She stayed. More refugees filtered through the cottage, through us, the last stop before the border, and we fed them and played games with the little ones. We got careless” (Machado 42). As to be expected in such a dystopian narrative, what the narrator cares about does not survive. Indeed, her lover dies from the virus, and the narrator gets “into a dinghy and [rows] to the island, to this island, where I have been stashing food since I got to the cottage. I drank water and set up my tent and began to make lists” (Machado 43). Thus, the story’s form and the genre are united as the dystopia epidemic genre becomes the occasion for the making of the lists. Returning to Delany, many of the sentences in this short story could appear in a realist text, yet the story’s impact would be undermined without the dystopian setting. In other words, the story is first speculative, then literary, as this story would not exist without the speculative element.

Cover of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
For a literary reader unfamiliar with speculative literature, many of Machado’s short fiction would still be palatable, even if perhaps misunderstood. This is why Marlon James beautifully muddies the water with Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Not only must literary readers learn a new way to read (which is why I believe critics struggled to see parts of the fantasy as anything more than metaphor), but they must also consult a different literary history. A critic’s ability to recognize allusions to Shakespeare or classical mythology or Faulkner would not be (much) help in this novel. Rather, knowledge of Tolkien, Delany, Saunders, and Howard is necessary to untangle the multi-layered narrative. For instance, a literary reader could interpret when the main character, Tracker, travels through a forest called the Darklands as a metaphoric quest. Rather, a speculative reader recognizes a familiar trope in a quest narrative: when the party must travel through an area they know better than to enter. Indeed, the scene where Tracker and the others discuss whether to enter the Darklands is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Fellowship discussing whether or not to enter the Mines of Moria: 

“Through the Darklands in one day. Around the lands is three days. Any man with sense would make the choice,” Fumeli said.

“Well, man and boy, choose whatever you want. We go round,” [Tracker] said. (James 228)

 Because James so directly engages with a fantasy trope, a speculative reader can expect the Darklands to be full of danger. Indeed, Tracker and his companions barely escape, but they are rewarded with a magical door that leads them straight to their destination—even if they are chased into it by a monstrous monkey. Yet, nothing really “happens” in this section other than the adventure. Little new information is revealed about the characters. Tracker’s prowess as a warrior is established again, but that has not been in question for the reader. Indeed, like many epic fantasies or sword-and-sorcery narratives, this section is action for the sake of action.

Unlike in literary novels, reading metaphor or symbols into magical moments is doing a disservice to the writer. In speculative literature, James’s shape-shifting leopard and Tracker’s lover is truly a shape-shifting leopard, not a metaphor about queer love. In one of the more sentimental sections, Tracker and the Leopard save children from being murdered for their magical abilities. One of the children, a girl who turns into smoke, has nightmares during her sleep, shifting from her human body to intangible smoke, but Tracker learns how to comfort her, thus earning her lifelong friendship (James 56-7). While it may be tempting to write about these shifting bodies such as the girl and the Leopard as metaphoric, these characters should be read as actually possessing such abilities. While the shifting body maybe a theme evident in James’s worldbuilding, in a speculative novel, the critic must approach what’s on the page as part of that world’s reality as created by the author. By accepting what’s on the page as that novel’s reality, a literary reader must engage with the text in a very different way than they might engage with a literary text. Indeed, I argue this otherworldliness is one of the major reasons that speculative literature maintains a “low” literature.  

As for the inclusion of speculative fiction in the canon, I wholeheartedly argue that it should be included as ideas present in speculative fiction have had tremendous impact on the popular imagination and are thus part of the fabric of US culture and national identity.  While Jameson would argue that places speculative fiction too close to high literature while ignoring the genre’s own interesting history, I wish the canon was not divided by shelves in the bookstore but rather kept together, “major” and “minor” literatures all on the same shelf. While reading deeply within a genre or mode provides certain insights, I argue that the canon of a country should not be limited to one genre: literary fiction. First, the archive should be recovered and those canonical authors who have written speculative literature should have such texts taught, such Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman or “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Once these texts have been recovered, hopefully it would be easier to read and understand other foundational texts of speculative literature. For example, I, Robot has had a large impact on the popular understanding of robotics through Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws. Does not this text comment on modernity and Enlightenment ideals in a way that might be useful to compare to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823)? Similarly, does not Delany’s Dhalgren demonstrate racial tension in urban cities during the 1960s and 70s in a unique way? What insights and revelations could be gleaned by teaching Dhalgren and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) back to back? Even though speculative literature might not represent the reader’s reality on the page, it does offer different critical lenses for viewing cultural issues. 

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Revised edition, Wesleyan UP, 2009.

James, Marlon. Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Riverhead Books, 2019.

Jameson, Frederic. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2005.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Inventory.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 33-43, 2017.

Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w