May the 4th be with you

Today is officially National Star Wars Day, so let’s talk about science fiction. Star Wars itself has always seemed to me an odd mix of historical fiction and science fiction (after all, it did happen a long time ago), and therefore not as prescient as, say, Star Trek, which predicted–so far–smart phones, Alexa, and 3D printers, virtual reality, bluetooth, tablets, video chats, and whatever those things are the TSA uses to scan us at airports.

Read more

The (Not So) Great Debate

 Last night, while clicking through Facebook posts, I stumbled across a post that weighed in on the (non?) issue of literary versus genre fiction. I’ll summarize in case you missed updates from the battlefield. Teams have formed around both styles of writing. Each claims ardent devotees who scorn the other side with the sort of rabid disdain usually associated with British soccer hooligans. “Literary fiction” is dismissed by genre fans as snobbish tomes with herculean word counts, as devoid of plot as filled with florid description, favored with numerous obscure literary awards but absent actual readers. “Genre fiction” is written off, in turn, as fluff scribbled by MFA-less hacks, inexplicably popular with the masses and unfairly awarded with higher sales than its worthier cousin. A skirmish in the larger battle over which is the “best” fiction involves the foray of “literary” authors into “genre” fiction and what to make of (and where to shelve) the Frankenstein’s monster-ish cross-genre works such efforts produce.
The article I read focused on the invasion of science fiction by authors better known for literary works. I’m not sure which side of the literary-genre fence the article’s writer came down on or whether she loved or hated the cross pollination. The article vacillated between extolling the virtues of literary authors bringing the perceived superiority of their MFA-sanctioned writing to the pop fiction table and blasting the same authors for obliviousness to the nuances of the sci-fi genre and for being too stuck up to admit they were writing a genre work. I do, however, know where I stand. I have both feet planted in the camp of “who cares what you call it as long as you get something out of reading it?”. The literary and genre fiction labels are artificial constructs invented by people trying to figure out where to display books in stores. The only thing that really matters about books, the only thing that should matter, anyway, is whether the book offers you something that makes it worth the time and effort you invest in reading it. You, the reader, decide what “something” is. Escape, edification, confirmation, inspiration, whatever. You’re the only one who can decide if a book is “good” or worthy or worth it to you because you’re the one reading it. You’re the one investing your precious time and brain cells engaging with the words on the page or on the screen or in the audio file. Not your mother, not your neighbor, not your spouse or child, not your best friend, nor the people around the water cooler, nor some critic opining in a publication you never heard of. Your time, your mental and emotional energy, your decision. Call it literary, call it genre, call it Bob. As long as it tells a good story—again, “good” is your call. Plot, character, language, an abundance of ninja salamanders, whatever you want—and doesn’t leave you regretting hours of your life you’ll never get back, it’s legit.

What’s your opinion about the literary vs genre debate? Favor one over the other? Love both? Think “literary” and “genre” authors should each stay in their lane? Think labels are meaningless? 

Read more

Plan Your Escape

Escapist fiction is defined by Wikipedia as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” The term is often wielded like a derogatory club against works deemed unworthy by fanatical devotees of “literary fiction,” works that, according to Wikipedia, have “merit…involve social commentary or political criticism or focus on the human condition…and is often more focused on themes than on plot…” Literary fiction boasts of “analyzing reality” while escapist fiction, also known as popular or genre fiction, aims to escape reality. I love escapist fiction without apology. I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading a book that will never be nominated for a Pulitzer or a Nobel or a Man Booker prize. I’ve nothing against prize-winning works of great lit-tra-chure, except the prodigious heft of some of the hardback editions. I even read, and enjoy, literary novels. Several claim spots in my (out of control) TBR pile. But when I do read literary novels, I choose them based on the story they tell, not because of some important message the critics ensure me is waiting to be discovered in the 982 pages. I don’t need, nor do I especially want, my fiction to mirror or analyze society. That’s what non-fiction is for. I read the news to find out what’s going in the world. (Granted, it’s become difficult to distinguish between news and fiction these days. Thanks, Interweb.) If I want more depth or detail than a newspaper article can provide I turn to the non-fiction section of the bookstore. Non-fiction has come a long way since the days when it all tended to read like dust-dry textbooks. It’s become “creative” and often reads like a novel. I read fiction for entertainment. There, I said it. I feel no shame. Entertainment is not bad. Humans have always sought entertainment. True, we’ve created some sick forms of entertainment over the centuries but we’ve come up with some good stuff, too. Like fiction. I’m not hiding my head in the sand when I seek entertainment in fiction. I’m not trying to pretend what’s happening in the world isn’t happening. I know what’s going on. You can’t turn on a TV or open a social media feed or, depending on where you live/who you work for/what you look like/where you worship/who you love, step outside your door without getting a wallop of reality right upside your head. Sometimes I get so much reality my head hurts. I want to scream. I often cuss. Worse, I start to think things that make me worry I’m turning into a person I wouldn’t like very much. I need to get away from reality to save my sanity. I need to be entertained. I need to lose myself. I need to escape on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo or down a rabbit hole with Alice. I need to bring murderers to justice with Marple and Poirot. I need to poke a finger in bureaucracy’s eye while saving the universe with Jame Retief. Of course, genre fiction can have “literary merit”. Many literary novelists have jumped the pop fiction fence and created “cross-genre” or “genre blurring” works that leave bookstores scratching their heads about where to shelve them and prize committees fielding complaints about prizes being awarded to books that are “too popular.” A popular book can make a profound statement about our society and the human condition. Science fiction has a tradition of skewering societal norms and trends. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Laumer’s Retief series are just a few sci-fi novels that do this in entertaining (and in Laumer’s case, hysterical) ways. It’s possible to be capital-m-Meaningful and entertaining at the same time. For example, a fictional detective can solve a fictional crime while saying something about the society in which a particular victim succumbs to that particular crime. Plot doesn’t have to be sacrificed at the altar of significance. So, genre fiction, more power to you. Keep teaching us while you entertain. But, mostly, entertain. Tell me a good story. As Sana Hussain said in her essay, “Literary or Not: The Reality of Escapist Fiction,” let me “doff the burden of [my] problems and inhabit a world…that makes up for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the real world by offering rationality and resolution.” Bring order to chaos. Strike a blow for truth and justice. Let the good guy win. Remind me life isn’t always as twisted and ugly and painful as it seems. Entertain me. My overwhelmed brain and bruised soul thank you. Do you think the escapist vs literary debate is artificial? Is escapist a bad word? Why do you read escapist fiction? 

Read more