As I mentioned last week, trying to draw general conclusions about the relationship between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is difficult at best. For every “general” hypothesis, a slew of counter-examples can be raised which undermine its veracity. If, however, we think about both genres as falling somewhere on various probabilistic spectrums, then generalizations become simultaneously easier to identify and more defensible: after all, we’re only dealing with probabilities.
Given such a spectrum-based approach, what are the techniques that set borderline cases apart from their mainstream or speculative neighbors? There are many works which were published as science fiction or fantasy, but which simultaneously incorporate techniques more commonly found in literary fiction. When we look at works like John Crowley’s Little, Big, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, or Jo Walton’s Among Others we can spot at least three characteristics typically associated with literary fiction existing alongside the novel’s fantastical conceits:
Focus on Composition
As Peter pointed out in the comments to last week’s post, “literary” works tend to employ more complicated sentence and paragraph construction. While there is nothing wrong with purely functional prose (and a lot of great novels keep their prose and structures straightforward), those speculative fiction titles which get classified as “literary” tend to use rich language, evocative metaphors, and complex structures.
Consider the opening paragraphs from three very different novels:
|Peace by Gene Wolfe|
|Little, Big by John Crowley|
|A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo|
Debating which paragraph is “better” or “worse” is not constructive, and offers us no insight into the narratives or genres in question. However, we can clearly see certain stark differences in compositional method.
Wolfe and Crowley each rely on longer sentences, composed of a greater number of sub-clauses, and with a far greater number of passive and transitive verbs than does Ringo. Ringo’s prose, by contrast, is direct: straightforward and conversational in tone. Wolfe in particular litters his opening paragraph with a large number of vivid metaphors (the drip of melting snow, the melting icicles, the melting candle – noticing a pattern here?) which tie back into the overall emotional arc of the story and to his narrator’s inner experience. Such complexity at the sentence and paragraph level – and its relationship to the themes and emotional focus of the narrative – is more reminiscent of structures frequently found in mainstream literary fiction (whether fantastical or not).
Exploration of the Character’s Inner Experience
Much speculative fiction is centrally concerned with the characters’ influence on their environment. The hero saves the world, the heroine defeats the monster, etc. But when we look at those works which stride the borderland between speculative and literary fiction, their central concern is with the characters’ influence on their own inner experience.
While characters like Jo Walton’s Morwenna Phelps (Among Others) do affect the environment around them, the narrative focuses the reader’s attention on their internal journey, as expressed by their values, emotions, or relationships. The reader’s perception of the external consequences of characters’ actions is heavily occluded (or at least overshadowed) by the internal significance of these actions to the characters in question.
This is not to say that “conventional” speculative fiction eschews or otherwise diminishes its characters. I for one think that all great fiction requires great characters, and great characters stem from an exploration of their emotions, relationships, and values. But “less literary” speculative fiction differs by focusing the reader’s attention outward from the characters.
Consider Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games). Her narrative arc throughout the Hunger Games trilogy is heavily tied to her emotions and values, however the narrative directs the reader’s experience of those emotions and values by portraying Katniss’ emotional and moral arcs mediated through her physical conflict. Katniss’ struggles in the Hunger Games (and in her world’s politics) are a concretization of her inner struggles. This is a powerful and compelling narrative technique, which relies on deft control of pacing and narrative tension. Yet it is also a technique which is rarely found in literary fiction.
The third characteristic often found in borderline cases is ambiguity of interpretation, which is often tied to the story’s narrative focus on the characters’ internal experiences. In Megan Lindholm’s classic Wizard of the Pigeons, the reality of Wizard’s “powers” is kept crucially ambiguous. Lindholm draws (and maintains throughout) a careful line between madness and magic, letting the reader decide for themselves which “reading” of the narrative they wish to subscribe to.
In Gene Wolfe’s Peace, we are never given clarity or closure as to the narrator’s condition. The story is presented through Alden Dennis Weer’s disjointed and scattered memories, and we are never explicitly told/shown how the narrator relates to those memories in either time or condition. The reader is left to infer this information from clues scattered throughout the text. We are left to with a book which is difficult to pin down, as it can only be pinned down by an individual reader’s idiosyncratic prioritization of the significance of particular images.
Such intentional ambiguity is absent in more plot-oriented narratives, which focus the reader’s attention on events of a more binary nature: either the heroes succeed in their goals, or they fail.
Does the Door Swing Both Ways?
These are all characteristics of literary fiction which can and do happily co-exist with speculative devices, whether those conceits are fantastical in nature (e.g. faeries, magic, ghosts, etc.) or science fictional (e.g. space ships, FTL travel, time travel, etc.). And the door swings both ways: The techniques of speculative fiction can work well alongside literary fiction’s typical conventions.
Next week, I’ll be wrapping up this month’s exploration of literary fiction and speculative fiction’s intersection by taking a look at how works of literary fiction make use of the techniques of speculative fiction. I hope you’ll join me next week, but until then, what do you think sets “literary” speculative fiction apart from “the rest of” the genre?