When I was in college, I took a creative writing course with a well-known and well-regarded writer in residence who was teaching at my school (I won’t mention her name, for reasons that will soon become clear). It was an excellent class and it prompted me to write some short stories that I never would have attempted otherwise, including one piece that my wife considers one of my better works.
As part of the course, we had periodic one-on-one conferences with the instructor. I remember the last conference I had with her; I had just written a science fiction piece that had been presented to the class. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, but it was well-received by the other students and I still think it’s a solid story. Anyway, we went through the usual proceedings of the one-on-one, talking about suggestions for revising the story and ways to punch it up. But I specifically remember that conference for one remark the instructor made. She told me that I was a talented writer and that I was progressing well, but said, in so many words, that I was wasting my time writing science fiction.
Stephen King once wrote that every successful person has at least one naysayer who tells them that they’re wasting their time and talent in pursuing their goals. I guess this woman was my naysayer; hopefully that means I’ve got great things ahead of me. But that’s not really the point of this blog post.
The point is, that this learned woman, this skilled writer, felt that an entire genre of fiction was a waste of my time. And I’m not picking on her in particular, because this is a common sentiment among many people, not just in academia, but in the arts community as a whole; the notion that science fiction and fantasy are nothing more than popular, escapist tripe, and are incapable of conveying deeper meaning. We see this reinforced all the time; AMPAS almost never awards an Oscar to a sci-fi film. Literary awards like the Pulitzer Prize are so rarely given out to science fiction and fantasy works that these genres have their own awards dedicated specifically to them. Science fiction of any kind is almost never taught in a classroom. It’s not part of the “accepted” canon.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, the arguments justifying this treatment of science fiction (when somebody I’ve spoken to on this subject has even attempted to justify their stance), boil down to two main points; popularity and subject matter. I’ll address both points below (and please note that both of these points and my counter-arguments are equally applicable to fantasy fiction).
The first argument is pretty straight-forward; people who adopt an anti-science fiction stance do so because it’s a popular genre. The argument, as I understand it, is that it’s popular fiction, intended to be entertainment and nothing more, and therefore it doesn’t have any literary value.
I shouldn’t have to explain why this argument is flawed, but here we are.
Many of the greatest works of literature, enormous portions of the accepted canon, are comprised of (formerly) popular fiction. Shakespeare’s entire body of work was written not for a noble, educated audience, but for the masses of Elizabethan England, the groundlings, people who did not have anything in the way of formal schooling. He wasn’t writing for the elite, but rather for the common man. And yet his plays are still so brilliantly written, so full of wit, fascinating characters and valuable lessons about love and hate, loyalty and revenge, that they are taught in classrooms to this day.
Similarly, Charles Dickens was the James Patterson of his day, an almost absurdly prolific author whose works were read by millions of English readers in serialized form. They were highly commercial; in fact, the story goes that A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ beloved masterwork about redemption and the spirit of charity, was written almost overnight by Dickens in an attempt to earn a fast paycheck to buy Christmas presents for his family. And yet Dickens is one of the authors most widely taught in our schools; it’s almost impossible to graduate high school without reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities.
Now understand, I’m not trying to make the opposite argument, that just because something is popular, it must be good. I think most of my readership who have made the mistake of reading a Twilight novel or, God help you, seeing one of the movies, can attest to that. However, discounting a work as having merit simply on the grounds that it’s popular is the kind of illogical behavior I’d expect educated people to know better than to indulge in.
The second point, that of subject matter, seems to hinge on the idea that because a work of fiction focuses on fantastical, out-of-the-ordinary subject matter, it cannot address the kind of serious human issues and themes that true works of literature do.
Again, I shouldn’t have to explain the flaw with this argument, but here we are.
The notion that one can’t deal with important concepts in the context of a non-realistic fictional world flies in the face of the very concepts of simile and metaphor. More to the point, it overlooks the fact that those literary devices can be much more effective than simply coming out and stating the point you’re attempting to make. The fact of the matter is, science fiction can be a brilliant way to attempt to make a point to your audience while flying under the radar, if the point you’re attempting to make may not be well-received. All voices for change are inherently subversive, and an audience may find a subversive message easier to listen to if it’s presented in the guise of something else.
And proof of this concept is abundant in science fiction of all kinds. The works of Ray Bradbury provide scathing criticisms of the increasing connectivity of our “always on” society, as well as served to predict future technological trends with amazing accuracy. Marvel’s X-Men comics and films are still some of the most enduring and effective criticisms of discrimination against a class of people because of their differences from “normal” people. James Cameron’s Avatar was, in many respects, a more effective environmental piece than Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. And those are just a handful of examples; I could name dozens more, were it not for the fact that this would quickly become tedious for myself and my readers.
Now that’s not to say that all science fiction conveys amazing truths about us and the world we live in; I’ve certainly read my share of SF that was purely meant to be pulp entertainment. But the same is certainly true of family dramas, historical romance or any other genre of fiction you could name. Nothing is brilliant or deep merely by the virtue of its setting; only craftsmanship and inspiration can achieve those ends. Those are the qualities we should be celebrating, regardless of the wrapper in which they are contained, and denying an entire body of work because it has space aliens or fictional technology is every bit as foolish as overlooking a work because it was written in times gone by.
Because no writer should be told they’re wasting their time…unless they happen to be writing Twilight, in which case, all bets are off.