Genre does not determine the quality or merit of a book. It only describes certain conventions used in the storytelling and helps booksellers decide where to shelve particular books. It is a loose term with ill-defined boundaries. For example, one would probably find Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, a fantasy novel, shelved with literary fiction (which some argue is a genre in itself, with its own sets of conventions and expectations.) On the other hand, China Mieville's The City and the City, though it centers around a mind-bending premise, does not involve supernatural or science fictional elements, and is more of a crime thriller, is found amongst the science fiction and fantasy. And this has mostly to do with how the previous works of these authors have been marketed.
Fantasy is an integral part of our literary canon, from the earliest stories like the Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Arabian Nights to The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gulliver's Travels, Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, A Handmaid's Tale, The Life of Pi and so many, many more. It could be said that all fiction is in some sense fantasy, since it is the imagining of things which have not happened. To include heroes, magic, monsters, aliens, strange worlds and technology, imagined futures, does not preclude a work from being literary.
But what does it mean to be literary? Is it an important distinction? Does such a thing even exist, or is it just another manner of arbitrary categorization, a way for elites to feel superior? Can we truly hold up some works as being literary, artistic and meaningful, while relegating others to being pure entertainment? I would argue that you can, but it is certainly not a black and white issue. There is not a line where on one side you have literature and on the other you have pulp. Everything has a degree of literariness and a great deal of subjectivity is involved in making these judgements. But I do think there is a strong objective case to be made for why certain works are superior to others.
|The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali|
Floweriness of prose does not make a thing literary. I think there is a misconception that literariness is somehow tied up with long, convoluted sentence structure, big words, figures of speech and experimental style. I blame James Joyce for this. But one only has to look at Ernest Hemingway, one of the great American novelists, but also the poster-boy for sparse, straight-froward prose style. And you can see a spectrum of writing styles within the fantasy genre itself. Compare the long, multi-clause sentences of Fritz Leiber with tight economical prose of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example.
Being literary does not mean being difficult, obscure or inaccessible. But I do think it means being challenging. It means having a certain level of sophistication, complexity, nuance, or subtlety that makes the reader think about aspects of the human experience or question preconceived notions.
The notion of literariness was the principal concern of Russian formalist thinkers. Their answer to what makes a work literary was what they called defamiliarization (or ostranenie, 'making strange.') It is the process by which art and literature slows down our perception of the familiar, those things that we automatically perceive, those things we take for granted, and thus makes them strange, casts them in a new light.
And here we find the essential difference between genre and literary writing. Genre writing, at the extreme end, aims to be pure entertainment, to be comfortable. It wants to take readers on a thrill ride but not jar them too much. It uses genre conventions as a tool for familiarity. Having the reader linger over a phrase, re-read or stop to think, having the reader "thrown out of the story," is not what the genre writer wants. It is all about momentum and keeping the readers attention (which these days tends to have a very short span) without necessarily connecting or communicating with them.
Now, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. And I believe we should judge books based on what they are, the intentions of the author and the expectations of the audience. But there is absolutely no reason why a book cannot be thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. In fact, I am not entertained by things which do not engage me intellectually. And I find fantasy and science fiction to be the genre which most captivates my mind because it is so well positioned to make things strange.