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butterweedstrover

Should the speculative genre (science-fiction/fantasy) be considered as literature?

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As an addendum I believe it could, however it has not proven to do so in any popular fashion.  

I was discussing this issue with a number of fantasy readers and in doing so described why I did not feel Tolkien would qualify as literature. Eventual we came upon the subject of numerous science-fiction and dystopian novels including 1984, Brave New World, and anything by Asimov.

The thrust of the matter was whether analytical writing could be defined as 'literature'. Analytical writings (in my opinion) are helpful to outline any number of facts or figures or communicate a certain moral philosophy. However that goal does not fit with the aesthetic accomplishment of art which is to (by way of cultural influence and evolution) produce a universal truth that is elliptical and open to interpretation. Analytical writing does not allow for that because it cannot by its nature communicate the ambiguity and irrationality of emotions. It is based in the realm of logic, which is too static to be described as art.

I know of course Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley) for example is read in school, but my personal belief is that it does not qualify as literature. Like Orwell it is a work of political activism, or sociology. It provides an experimental study into the affects of some form of government, and in the end lays out the philosophical debate in an open discussion by two characters at the end of the novel. This type of moral preaching is lecturous and survives only in the realm of politics. I do not believe these novels however (that birthed the speculative fiction sub-genre) could ever qualify as literature because their precepts reject the very origins of the medium.

Take anything from Homer to Milton and tell me where the story was an invention of one political ideology? Furthermore the successors to this type of speculative fiction including Tolkienesque fantasy are not about emotional complexity, but rather the construction of a world and the establishment of an alternative reality. The characters, however deep, have a consistent through line from which their reactions can be predicted. Rather the story is based on their interaction with this constructed world and how significantly the reader can understand said character. That style has its benefits, but it limits any and all potential literary value. 

PS. Since there was more to the discussion (with my reference to Milton) I should say propaganda like Nennius, the Aeneid, or even The Birth of a Nation (filmography) can be beautiful art despite their intentions. That is because unlike political activism or philosophy, propaganda attempts at emotional appeal and gains legitimacy by its quality as art, not by the rational content of its argument.  

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Well, for the general definition of literature (printed works), sure of course.

For the specific definition of literature that you seem to be aiming at here (aka the snooty kind), why not? Sci fi and fantasy can be as pretentious as anything else.

P.S. While I prefer my definition of "the snooty kind", the actual dictionary says "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features" and I'm hard pressed to see how even the snootiest of snoots can deny that could be achieved even by books of a certain genre.

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3 minutes ago, Starkess said:

Well, for the general definition of literature (printed works), sure of course.

For the specific definition of literature that you seem to be aiming at here (aka the snooty kind), why not? Sci fi and fantasy can be as pretentious as anything else.

P.S. While I prefer my definition of "the snooty kind", the actual dictionary says "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features" and I'm hard pressed to see how even the snootiest of snoots can deny that could be achieved even by books of a certain genre.

 

25 minutes ago, polishgenius said:

This whole talking point seems to be based on an unreasonably elitist definition of what 'literature' means, a narrow-to-the-point-of-ignorance view of what SF/fantasy is like, and a total ignorance of the works of Gene Wolfe. 

Since both these post are alike I might as well respond to them concurrently. 

Literature normally has two definitions: any written work OR writings that have superior/lasting artistic merit. 

Going off the second definition, artistry comes from the communication of some universal theme that is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Analytical works attempt to construct a single defined answer that is by their nature precise and factual. However well the arguments are made is besides the point. 

Fantasy and Science-Fiction could be literature, but I believe they actively avoid and scorn artistic merit. Literature is not just elitist or 'snooty' (words with negative connotations), it is open for debate and evolution. If someone were to disagree with my post and claim modern speculative books are literature then that will help increase discussion. 

For example, I have heard Gene Wolfe described as literary fantasy, but I don't agree overall. Or at least I have not heard a convincing argument as of yet. To that point most fantasy books attempt to tackle high ideas, but do so in the vein of political activism (Erikson) and in my mind do not qualify as an aesthetic accomplishment.  

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Speaking as somebody who is working towards one day teaching literature at uni level: yes. ;)

I think the OP only means what is classified "high literature" (also elite, or simply snooty, if we are operating in these terms) as "literature", which to me is absurd. Literature, to me, is either anything printed and published, or, narrower definition, anything written* that is fictional. I come from a bit of a different language background and read most theories about literature in German or Slovene, so this English understanding of literature only being its smaller, "elite" part, is foreign to me.

*Oral traditions as opposed to written are generally not counted as literature, but even there could be a case.

 

OP, you are also missing the part of the definition of literature where the aesthetical role of the language itself is central to the classification of something as literature (Jakobson's poetic function!). Fantasy can definitely have beautiful prose or even parts written in verse, which speaks for its classification as, well, literature in whatever definition you use.

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The term 'speculative fiction' is meaningless anyway - all fiction is speculative. It's like calling a genre 'fictive fiction'. The term was only invented because of the sort of weird snobbery that suggests genre fiction of various types (detective fiction, fantasy, sf, romance) is inherently without worth. 

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10 hours ago, butterweedstrover said:

Analytical writings (in my opinion) are helpful to outline any number of facts or figures or communicate a certain moral philosophy.

I contend morality and ethics are a fundamental part of the human experience and as close as you can come to what you consider a fundamental truth or universal themes. There's certainly an element of political activism in most dystopias, but you'd also find it in, say, Dickens or Solzhenitsyn. Much of what you consider 'analytical writing' (much of Orwell) has strong elements of satire (which would also be a literary genre).

 

10 hours ago, butterweedstrover said:

Take anything from Homer to Milton

What's the difference in genre between The Odyssey and Lord of the Rings?

 

You also seem to play around with some ideas such as emotional complexity or aesthetic merit which are ultimately value judgments on the quality of the writing. Even if you were right (I don't personally believe so, though) and no work of science fiction or fantasy up to date met those lofty standards, it wouldn't be an issue with the genre, but with the writers.

 

10 hours ago, butterweedstrover said:

Fantasy and Science-Fiction could be literature, but I believe they actively avoid and scorn artistic merit.

Why would they do that? (They here being the authors, as literary genres can not actively avoid anything). They might aim for sales or popularity, but so did many classic authors (and I believe emotional complexity and universal themes are both satisfying to write and have general appeal).

 

I'm definitely of the opinion that classic Science Fiction tries to deal with important universal questions like the relationship between humankind and technology, the nature of humanity and consciousness, the effect of humanity on its environment, etc. Classic authors like Asimov and Clarke and also newer ones like Banks or Cixin Liu. There's a very interesting (and fun) YouTube series on science fiction made by the people from Extra Credits which I very much recommend if you'd like more of a background on the genre: Extra SciFi.  

 

I'm also very much of the opinion that literature, however you understand it, is neither snotty (though some people may be :P) or elitist (available for free at your local library).

 

 

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Apart from the dismissiveness of SFF on show, and lack of knowledge of the variety in it, my mind boggles just at the idea that political leanings or points in a work disqualify it from being 'literature'. Even the most exclusive definitions I've heard used don't go for that idea, and doing so would, to borrow a classification I don't like because it's already too elitist, snobby and culturally ignorant, just to show how mad this particular definition is, discount vast swathes of the Western Canon. Imagine dismissing everything from Austen to Bulgakov to Steinbeck and then claiming you have a workable definition of what literature-as-art means. 

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1 hour ago, Mentat said:

I contend morality and ethics are a fundamental part of the human experience and as close as you can come to what you consider a fundamental truth or universal themes. There's certainly an element of political activism in most dystopias, but you'd also find it in, say, Dickens or Solzhenitsyn. Much of what you consider 'analytical writing' (much of Orwell) has strong elements of satire (which would also be a literary genre).

Solzhenitsyn was very political in his writing, often at the level of Orwell. Dickens is slightly different. Yes often times he tackled issues of poverty in the industrial age or some such problems, but he was not lectourous about the cause or the solution. There were villains and heroes but it focused on emotional appeal which is fundamentally artistic. 

I liken Dickens to a propagandist like Vergil or Nennius, not a political activist. He is a propagandist for the poor. And as such his focus was on artistic merit rather than the logical substance of his argument.  

Morality and ethics are isolated from the human experience when books attempt to argue their point. Rather than the story being about a human experience, it is about using characterization to reveal some single truth about philosophy or whatever. Erikson does this in his work a lot, he uses narrative paint to mask some philosophical opinion. But that is not the greatest affect of this medium or its purpose as an artform.    

1 hour ago, Mentat said:

What's the difference in genre between The Odyssey and Lord of the Rings? 

They are very different. On the surface they are both an adventure of someone trying to reach point A from point B. 

That is just the surface structure. LotR has heavy handed simplistic morality functioning as a second wheel to the intricate world-building and reconstruction of Celtic/British lore. I don't begrudge Tolkien, but his focus on the world as the primary end was bellied by the fact that he wanted an alternative reality. This is to say he wanted to make real the fantastical. He utilized specified details to rationalize the existence of everything which is at heart analytical.  

Homer never brought into question the logic of the cyclopes or the sirens or the Nymph or any such thing. They were just thematic devices to challenge the main character and reinforce the themes common in story-telling. 

 

1 hour ago, Mentat said:

 

You also seem to play around with some ideas such as emotional complexity or aesthetic merit which are ultimately value judgments on the quality of the writing. Even if you were right (I don't personally believe so, though) and no work of science fiction or fantasy up to date met those lofty standards, it wouldn't be an issue with the genre, but with the writers. 

Evidently. Though authors define their genre when they are promoted as "the best of the best." 

1 hour ago, Mentat said:

 

Why would they do that? (They here being the authors, as literary genres can not actively avoid anything). They might aim for sales or popularity, but so did many classic authors (and I believe emotional complexity and universal themes are both satisfying to write and have general appeal).

In my humble opinion they focus much more on building an alternative reality and debating a philosophical or political idea so that it can be better applied to a modern context. 

Art is never so direct as to build an argument for or against something. It is elliptical in nature, it appeals to something more intuitive than logic, and as such is ambiguous and open to interpretation.  

Either way, trying to do both is impossible

1 hour ago, Mentat said:

I'm definitely of the opinion that classic Science Fiction tries to deal with important universal questions like the relationship between humankind and technology, the nature of humanity and consciousness, the effect of humanity on its environment, etc. Classic authors like Asimov and Clarke and also newer ones like Banks or Cixin Liu. There's a very interesting (and fun) YouTube series on science fiction made by the people from Extra Credits which I very much recommend if you'd like more of a background on the genre: Extra SciFi.   

Universal questions in the context you mention is not so much a universal truth as it is about a situation.    

And I don't see how Asimov or Liu could focus on artistic merit when their focus is analyzing a situation and determining the likely outcomes. 

 

7 hours ago, polishgenius said:

Tell me you haven't read Gene Wolfe without telling me you haven't read Gene Wolfe. 

Feel free to explain why you qualify Gene Wolfe as good literature. I have heard arguments for and against. That does not stop you from (critically) explaining why you believe something is so. 

We are on a discussion forum after all.

5 hours ago, Buckwheat said:

Speaking as somebody who is working towards one day teaching literature at uni level: yes. ;)

I think the OP only means what is classified "high literature" (also elite, or simply snooty, if we are operating in these terms) as "literature", which to me is absurd. Literature, to me, is either anything printed and published, or, narrower definition, anything written* that is fictional. I come from a bit of a different language background and read most theories about literature in German or Slovene, so this English understanding of literature only being its smaller, "elite" part, is foreign to me.

*Oral traditions as opposed to written are generally not counted as literature, but even there could be a case.

 

OP, you are also missing the part of the definition of literature where the aesthetical role of the language itself is central to the classification of something as literature (Jakobson's poetic function!). Fantasy can definitely have beautiful prose or even parts written in verse, which speaks for its classification as, well, literature in whatever definition you use.

I never questioned the possibility that fantasy or science-fiction could be literature. Much of Shakespeare could qualify as fantasy. Frankenstein is also science-fiction, so evidently the genre is capable. 

However my issues comes with the modern speculative genre and how they overall reject artistic merit in their work. Even 'beautiful' prose has a distinct purpose. It is not just about having flowery language, it is about communicating complicated emotions in an expedient manner. The problem with dry analytical language is that it does not have the ambiguity or depth to relay theme in a literary context. Just because something is fictional does not mean it cannot be as dry and lifeless as a medical report.  

I don't consider this elitism, that is why this discussion is open to debate. If one wanted to argue why the analytical style embraced by every major speculative author can relay artistic merit feel free to do so. Well argued disagreement (or agreement) is the point of this thread after all.    

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Posted (edited)
47 minutes ago, polishgenius said:

Apart from the dismissiveness of SFF on show, and lack of knowledge of the variety in it, my mind boggles just at the idea that political leanings or points in a work disqualify it from being 'literature'. Even the most exclusive definitions I've heard used don't go for that idea, and doing so would, to borrow a classification I don't like because it's already too elitist, snobby and culturally ignorant, just to show how mad this particular definition is, discount vast swathes of the Western Canon. Imagine dismissing everything from Austen to Bulgakov to Steinbeck and then claiming you have a workable definition of what literature-as-art means. 

Well, everything in my OP was an opinion and open to debate. That is why I posted it here; I would only hope that you are willing to explain why you believe something is the way it is. 

I never said Austen or Steinbeck were not literary authors, nor did I claim that an author who has a political leaning is 'disqualified'.  

If you would like me to reiterate, I argued why analytical writings reject artistic merit. Novels that are focused on a certain political claim are invariably analytical because they focus on the veracity of their logic to bolster their claim.   

That is not to say literature does not have segments with political leanings from the author, but that is never the main focus. Art is, by its own existence as an aesthetic appeal, an emotional work first and foremost. It speaks to people in ways that could be irrational or illogical to describe an elliptical truth open to interpretation. Of course any of these works could have elements that are factual, but the whole of the work is not centered around one political/philosophical lecture. 

 

Edited by butterweedstrover

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4 minutes ago, butterweedstrover said:

Morality and ethics are isolated from the human experience when books attempt to argue their point. Rather than the story being about a human experience, it is about using characterization to reveal some single truth about philosophy or whatever.

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think books like 1984 try to make their point far more through an emotional appeal (presenting the reader with the suffering of its characters and the injustice of the situation they live in) than through a logical argument that appeals to the intellect.

 

15 minutes ago, butterweedstrover said:

They are very different. On the surface they are both an adventure of someone trying to reach point A from point B. 

That is just the surface structure. LotR has heavy handed simplistic morality functioning as a second wheel to the intricate world-building and reconstruction of Celtic/British lore. I don't begrudge Tolkien, but his focus on the world as the primary end was bellied by the fact that he wanted an alternative reality. This is to say he wanted to make real the fantastical. He utilized specified details to rationalize the existence of everything which is at heart analytical.  

Homer never brought into question the logic of the cyclopes or the sirens or the Nymph or any such thing. They were just thematic devices to challenge the main character and reinforce the themes common in story-telling.

But whether Tolkien decides to focus more on worldbuilding or handles his morality in a more simplistic way (and I'd argue these statements are contentious) these are differences in execution, not in the genre itself. If Tolkien were more loose with his worldbuilding and payed more attention to his characters moral conflicts, Lord of the Rings would still be a fantasy novel by virtue of its dwarves, elves and dragons.

 

21 minutes ago, butterweedstrover said:

Art is never so direct as to build an argument for or against something. It is elliptical in nature, it appeals to something more intuitive than logic, and as such is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

Again, I find this an enormously contentious statement. Can you back it up with something or is it purely your opinion?

 

23 minutes ago, butterweedstrover said:

Universal questions in the context you mention is not so much a universal truth as it is about a situation.    

And I don't see how Asimov or Liu could focus on artistic merit when their focus is analyzing a situation and determining the likely outcomes.

I really don't understand this argument. Any novel has a context (situation?) and any good author is able to focus on more than one thing at a time. You seem to assume that writing in a certain (exceedingly broad) context implies a lack of willingness to tackle any of the purposefully ambiguous themes that you consider components of artistic merit, and there's simply no base for this. Even if most of current Science Fiction and Fantasy wasn't very good (which I don't agree with, but I could accept for the sake of argument), that wouldn't make your point any more true, it would simply mean that the last 50 years have produced a particularly mediocre batch of writers.  

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6 hours ago, Buckwheat said:

I think the OP only means what is classified "high literature" (also elite, or simply snooty, if we are operating in these terms) as "literature", which to me is absurd. Literature, to me, is either anything printed and published, or, narrower definition, anything written* that is fictional. I come from a bit of a different language background and read most theories about literature in German or Slovene, so this English understanding of literature only being its smaller, "elite" part, is foreign to me.

From my middlebrow UK perspective: there is definitely a group of people, mostly academics, who are the self selected keepers of the flame of what you have called "high literature". They decide on the small number of authors who qualify, and they sneer at all other forms of fiction as being "lesser". They generally seem to hold Tolkien in particular contempt, possibly because LotR generally tops any list of the UK's favourite works of fiction. Their criteria seems inconsistent to me (for example I understand that Doris Lessing is in, despite writing works that she herself described as science fiction, if in somewhat condescending terms).

The vast majority of us just simply ignore these people and read whatever we want to.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Mentat said:

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think books like 1984 try to make their point far more through an emotional appeal (presenting the reader with the suffering of its characters and the injustice of the situation they live in) than through a logical argument that appeals to the intellect. 

There is a difference between emotional appeal and emotional manipulation. 

"Where the Red Fern Grows" for example uses emotional manipulation (dog dies) to insinuate depth that is for all intent and purpose absent. In that same way political activism can utilize emotional manipulation to increase participation. 

But that is not the same as emotional appeal. The difference is somewhat subjective because you could argue whether something is deep or just illusive, but regardless analytical works only ever focus on one singular truth and therefore cannot have ambiguity in their emotions. If 1984 had ambiguity about the suffering of an authoritarian state then it would undermine the entire philosophy of the book. 

Mind you the author could always factually entertain a counter-argument (factually explore the upsides) but that is controlled opposition. To give readers free rein to interpret what they will goes against the nature of analytics.    

Quote

 

But whether Tolkien decides to focus more on worldbuilding or handles his morality in a more simplistic way (and I'd argue these statements are contentious) these are differences in execution, not in the genre itself. If Tolkien were more loose with his worldbuilding and payed more attention to his characters moral conflicts, Lord of the Rings would still be a fantasy novel by virtue of its dwarves, elves and dragons. 

I think one leads to the other. His focus on determinant Christian morality as a theme comes from his obsession with recreating a British mythology. He wanted to recreate the lore of Celtic, Saxon, and the Norse Sagas in an alternative setting in a very analytical way. That same objective led his story to be centered around a singular truth that reinforces the world-building. 

In that way his world-building created his narrative theme so we cannot separate them. Homer's themes created his world building, not vice versa. For Tolkien world-building was primary to his story. 

Quote

 

Again, I find this an enormously contentious statement. Can you back it up with something or is it purely your opinion? 

Well it is an opinion insofar as you can disagree, however... 

Artistic merit (applied to literature) is about aesthetic value. Not scientific value, the two are opposite and cannot coexist. 

Quote

 

I really don't understand this argument. Any novel has a context (situation?) and any good author is able to focus on more than one thing at a time. You seem to assume that writing in a certain (exceedingly broad) context implies a lack of willingness to tackle any of the purposefully ambiguous themes that you consider components of artistic merit, and there's simply no base for this. Even if most of current Science Fiction and Fantasy wasn't very good (which I don't agree with, but I could accept for the sake of argument), that wouldn't make your point any more true, it would simply mean that the last 50 years have produced a particularly mediocre batch of writers.  

I don't think I phrased that very well. 

My point was a universal truth in literature is true to the human experience regardless of where, when, what, etc. 

It can be applied to any point and time and is in that way timeless.

The situational conflicts that the speculative genre establishes CAN be literary (I don't deny that) but tackling subjects like automation vs. humanity or some other such thing that is dependent on a specific political/economic/geographic environment is (in my OPINION) detrimental to the objective of an aesthetic accomplishment.    

Edited by butterweedstrover

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Posted (edited)
15 hours ago, butterweedstrover said:

 

Since both these post are alike I might as well respond to them concurrently. 

Literature normally has two definitions: any written work OR writings that have superior/lasting artistic merit. 

Going off the second definition, artistry comes from the communication of some universal theme that is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Analytical works attempt to construct a single defined answer that is by their nature precise and factual. However well the arguments are made is besides the point. 

Fantasy and Science-Fiction could be literature, but I believe they actively avoid and scorn artistic merit. Literature is not just elitist or 'snooty' (words with negative connotations), it is open for debate and evolution. If someone were to disagree with my post and claim modern speculative books are literature then that will help increase discussion. 

For example, I have heard Gene Wolfe described as literary fantasy, but I don't agree overall. Or at least I have not heard a convincing argument as of yet. To that point most fantasy books attempt to tackle high ideas, but do so in the vein of political activism (Erikson) and in my mind do not qualify as an aesthetic accomplishment.  

With a belief as ignorant as that, it's going to be difficult to have much of discussion about what you want to discuss.  

edit: to add a bit of substance to my flippant reply:

Are the works that you consider literature devoid of 'political activism'?

Is Faulkner's Wild Palms excluded from "Literature" because it could be read as antiabortion, or for punishing its characters for their sexual behavior?

Is 100 Years of Solitude excluded from "Literature" for examining the human condition through the lens of a remote 19th century Colombian village and the civil warfare that was present at the time?  

Are the words of Wordsworth and Blake diminished by dealing with the problems arising from the industrialization of England? 

Edited by larrytheimp

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