Crossroads: The Cores of Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction

The relationship between speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction is complicated by decades of group identity dynamics, mutual ignorance, and overbroad critical generalizations about both genres. However, if we try to put our long-held attitudes to one side and focus our attention on the works themselves, we find that the two genres are neither incompatible, nor even that distant from one another.

The Truth and Lie of Critical Generalization

An integral part of a critic’s job is to cast an analytical eye across a field of literature and to connect dots, to spot commonalities or differences, to identity trends. In other words, our job is to generalize. At a certain level of abstraction, such generalization is valuable. It gives us insight about particular works, our culture, and the field. It lets us discuss the field as a field, without having to iterate through each individual title we’ve considered. Critical generalizations are valuable because they make literary conversations possible. But their trade off is a loss of nuance. And when such critical generalizations are filtered through group identity, they can be further reduced to such over-simplified chestnuts as “literary fiction focuses on character, while science fiction and fantasy focus on plot.”

That hoary old cliché is something I’ve heard time and again from readers of both mainstream literary fiction and science fiction and fantasy. Packed into it are often-unstated value judgments: one person might think that character is more important than plot, while another might have the opposite view. And it likewise introduces a false dichotomy into our conception of character and plot. But the nuanced truth that too often goes unstated – and which rests at the heart of speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction – is that character and plot are not mutually exclusive. They are not an either/or proposition, and neither character nor plot is a binary characteristic.

All elements of fiction – regardless of genre – lie on an intersection of spectrums.

The Spectrums in Science Fiction/Fantasy

Consider a plot-driven military SF story, such as A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo. It still has characters. Those characters still have agency. Those characters have desires, and emotions, and ambitions, and fears. When looked at along the character/plot axis, the most we can readily say about the story is that its plot is more central to the narrative experience than the inner life of its characters; that its characters are devices which move the plot forward. Whether this fact is “good” or “bad” depends entirely on our tastes as readers, and even upon our mood when we pick up the book.

By contrast, consider a fantasy novel that falls elsewhere on the character/plot spectrum: John Crowley’s Little, Big. As a story, it has a plot. Events happen. Characters do things. But the actions that they take and the experiences they undergo serve to focus our attention on their inner experiences and their development. In this case, the novel’s plot becomes a device to move the characters. And again, applying a value judgment to this fact (whether it is “good” or “bad”) boils down to what we value as readers.

Between these two (to my view, extreme) examples one can point to countless stories which focus to greater or lesser degree on characters and plot. In the same fashion, we can place any title on similar spectrums in terms of its treatment of world-building, composition, form, setting, theme, etc.

Literary fiction can be discussed in terms of the exact same spectrums. The difference between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction boils down to where on such spectrums a genre’s “core” falls. And here we find the source of that old bromide: one can make the argument that the majority of literary fiction stories place a greater narrative focus on their characters, structures, and composition, while the majority of science fiction and fantasy stories place a greater narrative focus on plot, world-building, and setting.


To be clear, this does not mean that speculative fiction doesn’t value characters, or that literary fiction doesn’t value plot. Both do. Instead, it is a question of where on the spectrum a particular work in a specific genre is likely to fall. For historical and cultural reasons, literary fiction works are likely to place characters at their narrative heart, while speculative fiction works are likely to diminish character’s primacy in favor of plot, world-building, setting, or other creative priorities.

The “Cores” of Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction

To understand how mainstream literary fiction butts up against speculative fiction, it is essential to understand the “core” of mainstream literary fiction and where on various creative spectrums that core resides. This core changes significantly over time: the “core” of literary fiction in the 19th century, for example, places a much higher value on plot than does the 20th century’s.

Consider the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Leo Tolstoy. These were giants of literary fiction in the 19th century. And while their characters are often vivid and interesting, their plots are often just as integral (or more integral) to their narratives than their character’s inner experience.

Compare that to the literary “giants” of the 20th centry: James Joyce, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Umberto Eco, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jeffrey Eugenides, etc. As compared to their 19th century progenitors, the 20th century’s “literary giants” have moved their narrative lens to focus more on both characters, and the technical form of the narrative itself.

“Mainstream” authors who dabble in the fantastic – authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, M.J. Rose – emerge from this milieu of structural/compositional experimentation and character-oriented postmodernist ambiguity. Through their use of devices and conceits traditionally found in the science fiction/fantasy aisle, their works move away from the “core” of literary fiction, and approach the “core” of speculative fiction.

An analogous flow travels in the opposite direction. When we look at the works of speculative fiction authors like Charles Yu, John Crowley, Jeffrey Ford, Jo Walton, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, Gene Wolfe, and M. John Harrison we can see the application of structural devices “typically” found in literary fiction. Their narrative focus on character and form moves their works further from the “core” of speculative fiction, and closer to the “core” of literary fiction.

This doesn’t mean that these works stop being science fiction/fantasy, or stop being literary fiction. Instead, they straddle the fence between the two genres and reside in both.

How to Straddle the Fence

So given this broad critical theory, how do authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, M.J. Rose, John Crowley, etc. manage to blend “mainstream literary” methods with those of speculative fiction?

Since I’ve just spent a thousand words setting the stage for that discussion, I think I’ll leave that analysis for next week’s wrap up of the intersection between literary fiction and speculative fiction. Until then, how do you feel about literary fiction? And how do you feel about the spectrums on which literary fiction and speculative fiction reside?

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  1. When I think of literary scifi, I think of Gene Wolfe’s PEACE (character based) as well as Dan Simmon’s HYPERION (plot based, centered around a pilgrimage and why the characters are connected).

    Perhaps a general trend is noticed correctly, but for me, literary speaks more to quality of writing that appeals to the Harold Blooms of the world rather than being strictly character-focused.

    Interesting article.

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the essay!

      I might quibble about whether Hyperion is in fact plot-centered or character-centered, but I definitely agree that it qualifies as literary scifi. Mainstream literary fiction definitely places a higher value on structural and compositional experimentation, and is much more likely to diverge from a narrative told in a straightforward fashion.

      That being said, though, I think that SF/F’s willingness to play with form is somewhat cyclical in nature. Experimental forms were popular in the ’70s, and again in the late ’80s, and they seem to be coming back into vogue (e.g. Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy or Joe Hill’s NOS4a2 being but two recent examples). But at the same time, modern SF/F writers who do play with form and structure (e.g. David Mitchell, Charles Yu, etc.) are – for perhaps the first time – finding that mainstream literary imprints are at all welcoming.

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