An Asimov’s forum post pointed me to an interesting essay by Peter Watts called Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt in which he talks about Atwood’s aversion to the science fiction label.

The very first paragraph grabs your attention:

Start with a metaphor for literary respectability: a spectrum, ranging from sullen infrared up to high-strung ultraviolet. Literature with a capital L (all characters, no plot sits enthroned at the top. Genre fiction, including science fiction (all plot, no characters) is relegated to the basement. Certain types of fantasy hover in between, depending on subspecies: the Magic Realists get loads of respect, for example. Tolkein gets respect. (His myriad imitators, thank God, do not. Down in the red-light district, science fiction’s own subspectrum runs from “soft” to “hard”, and it’s generally acknowledged that the soft stuff at least leaves the door open for something approaching art – Lessing, Le Guin, the New Wave stylists of the late sixties – while the hardcore types are too caught up in chrome and circuitry to bother with character development or actual literary technique.

Leaving the Atwood issue described in the rest of the essay aside, this description of the literature landscape resonates with me because it adequately portrays the attitudes some people have for science fiction; “contempt” as Watts points out. (“Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” I love that line.) It’s the reason science fiction is still considered by many to be a lower-class citizen.

Call me impartial if you will. Although I like literature all over the spectrum, I tend to spend most of my reading time at the “lower” end. Yep, I can enjoy sf adventure that minimizes character development. I call it “fun”. I can also enjoy a good literary novel. That’s fun, too. It depends on my mood. It also depends on what I’m looking for in a book. I mainly read fiction for entertainment, wherever it resides in the spectrum. I’m not usually reading fiction specifically because it’s a Highly-Regarded Work of Literature.

I jokingly refer to those folks who look down on “un-Literary” books as Literary Snobs. There’s nothing wrong with preferring books written in literary style. It’s the contempt of anything else that seems unfortunate.

Filed under: Books

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