David Langford’s column in the February issue of SFX magazine was, as always, entertaining reading. But this one got me rather ticked off. Not because I disagreed with him but because it was about the all too frequent mindless blather of SF-hating journalists and commentators. Langford ran through nearly a dozen examples of what I suppose you could call speculative-fiction bigotry by ostensibly educated people who really ought to know better than to consign every example of a particular genre to the dustbin.
Some of the more egregious samples he gives: AA Gill gassing on in his collected TV reviews that “…people who don’t like or understand literature read science fiction.” Or the presenter (and recent ballroom dance failure) Fern Britton announcing on a TV programme that “I hate sci-fi as it’s not real and all these people who are fans think it’s real and it’s some sort of religion to them.” Or the Weekly Standard writer who opined “Lots of its authors, and a slew of its readers, like to think that science fiction sails on the ocean of science, but mostly it just paddles in the shallows of literature.”
Langford’s response to that last comment really hits the nail on the head. He writes: “The objection is that it shamelessly wallows in the gutters of popularity.” And that is what really sticks in the throats of most indiscriminating critics of genre fiction. It’s for the masses. I gave some fightback myself along these line in a Goodreads post a few months back. The battle between literary fiction and genre fiction has raged for a long time. Needlessly really, as the two can coexist and indeed sometimes morph from one into another. Many of the books we consider “classics” now, whether written by Dickens, Dumas, Conan-Doyle, or Kipling, were the genre-fiction of their era. Other works that were once lauded in 1870 as truly literary masterpieces are now absolutely forgotten in the mists of time. I realise that popularity isn’t always the bellwether of worth and staying power—I don’t reckon Fifty Shades of Grey will be bobbing around the pool of popular literature in ten years’ time never mind fifty or 100. But the point is, that there is good genre fiction as well as bad just as there is literary fiction that soars and some that stinks. And, to put paid to AA Gill’s obnoxious viewpoint, I’ll be reading Stephen King, George RR Martin, or Michael Moorcock one month and then Joseph Conrad, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, or Gore Vidal the next.
At its best, speculative fiction, horror, science-fiction, or fantasy—call it what you like—can shine a brilliant light on the human condition because it uses the fantastic to break out of the confines of normal existence. Naysayers ought to actually read before they leap.
But as for “chick-lit”….