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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Literary Snobbery (Part One): The Idiocy of "Artistic Expression"

I try not to dig into these sorts of issues primarily because, generally speaking, the arguments against genre fiction (specifically science fiction and fantasy) are almost all the same, almost always utterly ignorant, and almost always the mark of someone who, unfortunately, takes pride in thinking he or she is above someone else because he or she reads a certain kind of book (which is like saying that George W. Bush is better than Al Gore just because he won; I think we all now wish Gore had won).

But, on occasion I come across an argument that is particularly idiotic and makes points that are largely irrelevant or contradictory. And that is what this post is about. I use Google Alerts to send me blog posts based on a set of keywords, and this post sprung up for "fantasy literature." After reading it, I knew immediately that I had to blog about it. For identification purposes I'll stick to calling the author Roby.

Roby is one of those folks who, while apparently not someone that dislikes fantasy as an idea or mode of expression (he seems okay with a literary novel containing fantasy elements), but holds a particular disdain for fantasy as a genre (the popular form as we know it today). His argument, however, offers a lot of explanation as to why it is that fantasy is popular and literary fiction has largely fallen to the wayside, and why it is that literary purists simply do not understand literature at all.

Roby starts off by saying that fantasy isn't literature, but pulp fiction, and goes on to make this distinction:
Literature is created out of a desire for artistic expression, commentary on life, and contributing to humanity’s understanding of itself. It’s part of a giant, centuries-spanning dialogue that informs our identity as a species. Yeah, this is all high-minded, but really, it boils down to this: if the author sat down and wrote something they thought was important and worth others’ time, it’s literature.

The pulps, by contrast, are written purely for your entertainment. The author sat down and tried to figure out what you would like, and then tried her level best to serve you exactly that on a silver platter. There’s no attempt to communicate there, nothing that the author thinks is important. The book or short story or whatever is purely intended to allow you to spend time enjoyably. It’s fluff.
I'm sorry, but what? Let's break this down: literature is about artistic expression and the author's intent to produce something that is worth our (the reader's) time, while pulps are there for entertainment purposes. That doesn't compute, at all. First off, sitting here and presuming we understand every author's intent in creating some piece of written work is foolish; often times we don't know. Secondly, he just said that literature and pulps are the same thing. Both forms have to be "worth others' time," otherwise nobody would read either of them. It stands to reason that the problem with literary fiction is that it fails to connect with most readers and is, as such, not worth their time, while popular fiction forms, invented to be worth their time, are, well, popular as a result (and none of this is an indication, in my book, of whether one form is necessarily superior to the other, as this is often up to taste).

Then there's this bullcrap that you constantly see in the literary world about how literature is about expression and yadda yadda. Yes, of course it's about expression, but no individual can sit there and say that a fantasy novel written in a modern, popular fiction style isn't an attempt at expression. It's just a different kind of expression. While literary fiction places heavy focus on language to convey hidden meanings, etc., popular fiction tends to shift focus to the plot and ideas. That doesn't make it fluff; that makes it different, just like rock music is different from pop. Just because you don't get it doesn't mean the expression isn't there; there are many ways to show artistic expression and literary fiction isn't the only way.

And I'm calling bull that there is no attempt to communicate in fantasy. If anything, fantasy authors are attempting to communicate to the human imagination, offering an escape from the mundanity, or banality, of the real world so they can play the hero or heroine. That communication, that allowing for the reader to become a part of something that isn't real and thus be consumed into the fantasy, is as important and valuable as the communication provided through clever uses of language that make up literary fiction.

Because this critique of Roby's argument is quite extensive, and I understand that folks don't like reading extremely long posts (the same can be said of myself), I'm going to cut it up based on the theme. So, stay tuned for other installments and feel free to leave a comment with your opinion!

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  1. I wanted to comment but I keep ranting, it comes down to this "AAAAAAAAARGH". I don't care if people don't enjoy fantasy or want to read it, but that doesn't give them the right to declare it devoid of meaning and value. To me there is huge value in escapism and entertainment, but much fantasy does explore deeper concepts of humanity. See I should have stopped at Argh.

  2. If you apply the logic and definitions of this person to all of literature, everything we humans have ever written, including the various religious texts, are pulp.

    SF&F is, more often than not, thinly veiled social commentary. And if it's packaged up in pretty escapism, that just makes it easier to swallow.

    All writings exist to sell themselves, or why would the author have bothered?

    Even the people who penned the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Bible were trying to "sell" their work via their faith.

  3. Yup. Fantasy has its value as escapist literature and it certainly succeeds, on occasion, on making direct commentary on humanity.

    And obviously the concept of literature being something not consumed is simply stupid :P.

  4. Oh boy. Fantasy is Fluff?

    *Shake of Head* I have to agree that SF&F is literature. Enough said.

    What I wonder is if the author is able to escape within his life. I know individuals that do not enjoy SF&F because of their own arrogance on topics in the world. It is healthy to let go and live.

    SF&F is expressive in itself and allows followers to let go & dream. A good thing in my book ...

  5. Well, I have no problem with people disliking SF/F, just with trying to say it's not real literature.

  6. Anonymous7:08 AM

    He's also sexist. Notice how the literary writer is gender neutral, and the fantasy writer is 'her'.

    He's also clearly never read anything in the fantasy genre, since most of it does pretty well at commenting on life and 'contributing to humanity’s understanding of itself'. I mean, the classic now-cliche young person going on ye quest to discover themselves is what every single adolescent in the world goes through, only with literal monsters instead of figurative monsters.

    Also, if you look up the definition of 'literature', it says nothing about discounting stuff that's purely for entertainment.

    Also, I think he might be saying literary fic is boring ... so he's not only poorly dissing fantasy, he's insulting his own genre ...

  7. Oh, wow, I didn't pick up on the sexist part. That's rather disturbing.

    And I did pick up on his ripping on his own genre. I thought it was hilarious. He was basically saying "Literary fiction is boring as hell, while pulp fiction is really exciting." All reading is entertainment, or should be.