Fantasy Fiction and “Literary” Fiction

One occasionally finds a lament expressed in words more or less like this.

Sure, as e-reading replaces the printed page and a new generation becomes accustomed to reading on their smart phones, one finds no diminishing of available genre fiction. Fantasy and science fiction, mysteries and thrillers, horror and romance, all seem to be doing fine. But from where shall we look for the next The Catcher in the Rye, the next For Whom the Bell Tolls, or the next To Kill a Mockingbird?

You already know I’m going to consider this concern misplaced.

It’s entirely wrong in my opinion to regard “literary” fiction as a separate genre in itself. “Literary” fiction consists of all fiction that, like the three examples above, rises above any classification and becomes a work of art that will stand the test of time. There’s no formula for literary fiction, by definition, and it can arise from any genre. It must transcend the limits of its genre, it cannot be a hack piece, but that doesn’t mean it has no classification. Of the three books above, The Catcher in the Rye could be classified as a young adult novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls as a war novel, and To Kill a Mockingbird as either black fiction or political fiction.

To be sure, these categorizations are strained to the point of absurdity, but that’s always going to be the case with a book recognized as a literary achievement. By nature and inevitably, a literary work must not be formulaic. It can be of any genre, but it can’t be “just another” book of that genre. And just as inevitably, such powerful works of literature are rare, and they can only be recognized after the fact. One does not set out to write “the next Lolita” (erotic-tinged psychological drama?) or “the next Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (young-adult adventure?) or “the next Da Vinci Code” (murder mystery?). For one thing, to try to emulate a work of literary fiction that’s already been published and recognized is inherently to attempt something derivative, something formulaic, and therefore something that will never achieve its goal. One does not set out to accomplish this except in the most general way, by attempting to produce creative excellence in whatever one does.

Can a fantasy novel become a literary work? Why not?

Well, actually there is a reason why not, but it involves a certain amount of snobbery on the part of the literary establishment which considers some types of writing as beneath serious notice. Part of what it means to be a literary work evidently is recognition and acceptance by the literary-criticism establishment as such. What that means is that no work of fantasy fiction (or science fiction or murder mystery or romance — although actually Emily Bronte’s work falls into that last category, so perhaps Wuthering Heights shows I’m wrong there) can be a “literary masterpiece.” But it seems to me that it can meet all of the criteria except for that all-important snob-recognition and as such we may thumb our noses collectively at the lit-crit establishment much as a successfully indie-published author can regard the Big Six publishers with scorn and disdain.

What are those characteristics? Let’s start with the objective measures of success.

The book must sell reasonably well, although it does not need to make the best-seller lists particularly in its own time (within a few years of publication). The reading public’s taste being what it is, a hack piece can easily outsell a work of real literary merit and this is in fact not uncommon. (Think Fifty Shades of Gray — not only a hack piece but a really, really bad one. Which is not to say that erotica, if it meets all the other criteria, can’t rise to the level of a literary masterpiece. It’s just that most written erotica is awful, including that book.) So it doesn’t have to outsell everything else on the market, but it does have to at least sell a few thousand copies.

It must continue to be popular and loved for a great many years — decades, at least. (Which means I was premature in mentioning The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003. I think that will one day be recognized as a literary piece, but at this point it’s only nine years old.) A literary work is always one that stands the test of time.

The book must be well-written, according to normal standards of story construction, characterization, and voice.

The book must be unique. It may contain elements of its genre (in this case fantasy elements), but it must not be reducible to those elements, or to a formula of the genre. To call it “a fantasy novel” must feel as strained as calling All Quiet on the Western Front a war novel. Yeah, it is a war novel, but it’s more than that.

So by these measures, are there works of literary fiction that can be classified, however uneasily, as fantasy?

Absolutely! I nominate the following:

Le Morte d’Artur by Sir Thomas Mallory.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.

La Divina Commedia (particularly Inferno) by Dante Alighieri.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

One could place other titles in nomination, but those are sufficient to illustrate the assertion and provide support for the argument. All of these titles transcend the conventions of fantasy in some manner (or acted to create those conventions, being pioneering works that have been imitated widely). All have been reasonably popular. All are well written by the usual literary conventions. All have survived at least several decades, in some cases centuries.

Fantasy has exploded in popularity from about the 1970s until the present, which means there are a lot of fantasy titles out there that might one day become literary works, although at this point it’s premature to label them as such. Time will tell. But no matter the genre, the more that gets written in it, the greater the chance that some especially inspired and creative effort will rise above the limitations and conventions of the genre and stand the test of time.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Fantasy Fiction and “Literary” Fiction

  1. But it seems to me that it can meet all of the criteria except for that all-important snob-recognition…

    Absolutely. Jane Austen’s works are decidedly romance, as is Middlemarch, Romeo and Juliet and Anna Karenina, and yet those are hailed as literary masterpieces. (Note also how rarely romance novels by men are called romance novels.) Murder mysteries, fantasy and science fiction seem to fare the worst.

    I want to tell an anecdote, though this was a while ago and I might not be remembering as well as I should: I was at a book convention in Helsinki and attended a panel on fantasy fiction. One of the panelists was Johanna Sinisalo, who had recently won the Finlandia prize (highest Finnish literary award) for her urban fantasy novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (translated as Not Before Sundown, or Troll: A Love Story in the U.S.). Another panelist at one point tried to say, “yes, but this isn’t really fantasy…” Sinisalo said yes, yes it is – if it has strong fantastical elements, it is fantasy. The audience broke into applause. I couldn’t have agreed more. Everybody understood that “not really fantasy”, for that panelist, meant “has literary merit”, and Sinisalo was making a stand for the fantasy genre.

    An amusing correspondence of snobbery when it comes to films: if a film has every element and cliche that makes up a romantic comedy, but wins critical acclaim, reviewers will not call it a romantic comedy. It will be a “heart-warming drama”. Examples: As Good As It Gets, Punch-Drunk Love.

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