It is traditional that every now and then the fantasy genre make some sort of overture toward literary fiction. Be they sarcastic, self-deprecating, humorous, or outraged, the common core to all of these gestures is a desire for recognition. A desire that the "ivory tower academics" recognize that the best of the SFF genre stands worthy of their attention and praise.
Magical realism appears to have crossed the divide but the received wisdom seems to be that the moment a sword or laser gun enters the narrative all claim to literary worth flees the page.
SFF books that I have read recently that definitely qualify as literary fiction include Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Nod by Adrian Barnes, Master Assassins by Robert V.S Redick, and Robin Hobb's Fitz and the Fool trilogy.
Fantasy books are more accessible than literary fiction, they attract a younger demographic. They have fandom. Online this can lead to partisan behavior. We put ourselves down using the language borrowed from those same professors on university creative writing courses that won't touch a fantasy story.
My readers have an average age of 35. I have more readers in their 50s than I have readers in their teens. I imagine that series such as Bakker's Prince of Nothing and Abercrombie's First Law have similar demographics. But I see "written for edgy teens" as a commonly used insult regarding those books. This is the weaponizing of common prejudice for use in fandom-wars.
One thing every decent writer learns is that description serves two purposes simultaneously. It illuminates both the thing being described and the character giving the description. Nowhere is this more true than in insults. When one person attacks another using insults the choice of words almost always says more about the source than the target. The person describing Prince of Nothing or First Law, written by a forty-somethings, and read primarily by thirty-somethings, as "for edgy teens", is trying to establish their own maturity. Often they will be trying to break free of their own perceived recent naivety.
Last month a student at Yale, Lauren Ribordy, asked me for input on a semester paper she was doing for an English course on science fiction. The assignment was to make the case for a new book to be included in the curriculum. Her choice was King of Thorns.
Answering her questions and reading the resulting paper made me think in more concrete terms about the literary undercurrents in my work.
One of the genre's more cerebral reviewers, Pornokitsch, had this to say about The Broken Empire:
‘Jorg?’ and Fexler’s image rose above the ring, painted in whites as always, not quite opaque. If the Builders had set themselves the task of recreating ghosts from the stories told to children they could have done the job no better.
He focused on me as I spoke, his image growing sharper. ‘Can’t you see me?’
‘I can see you.’
‘Then you recognize me. Fexler Brews.’
I laid my hand flat across the book. ‘It says here that a prediction will diverge from the truth. The further the prediction is carried, the larger the discrepancy. Wraps it all up in statistics and bounds of course. But the message is clear enough. You’re a prediction. I doubt you’re anything like the man I saw die any more.’
‘Untrue,’ Fexler said. ‘I have the original data. I don’t need to rely on fading memories. Fexler Brews is alive in me as true and clear as ever.’
I shook my head and watched him. The shadows danced everywhere but across him. On me, on the walls, the ceiling, only Fexler constant, lit by his own light.
‘You can’t grow if you’re constantly defined by this collection of frozen moments that you keep returning to. And if you can’t grow, you’re not alive. So either you’re Fexler, and like him you’re dead. Or you’re alive, but you’re someone else. Something else.’
‘Are you sure it’s me we’re talking about?’ Fexler raised a brow – very human.
‘Ah...’ It closed on me like steel jaws. The worst traps are the ones we lay for ourselves. All these years and it took a nothing, a web of numbers, to show me to myself. I could count on one hand the brief and personal passion plays that nailed me to my past. The carriage and the thorns. The hammer and Justice burning. The bishop. Father’s knife jutting from my chest. And at my hip, in a copper box, perhaps one more. ‘I liked you better before, Fexler. Why are you here?’
I return to the issue of memory many times.
"Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him. Chip away a memory at a time and you destroy him as surely as if you hammered nail after nail through his skull."
"A man is made of memories. It is all we are. Captured moments, the smell of a place, scenes played out time and again on a small stage. We are memories, strung on storylines--the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves, falling through our lives into tomorrow."
"There are truths you know but will not speak. Even to yourself in the darkness where we are all of us alone. There are memories you see and yet don't see."
"Nothing can be cut away. Even the worst of our memories is part of the foundation that keeps us in the world."
This theme is even there in a thriller I wrote recently:
“Pop quiz,” I said. “If you committed a crime but had no memory of it … would you feel guilty.”
“Well, yes I’m guilty,” Mo said. “They should put me in jail before I do it again.”
“That’s not the question. Do you feel guilty? In your bones. I mean, memory is all you are. We’re just a collection of memories that we spent our lives stacking up in an order we’re happy with. If that’s taken away … if your memory of doing it is wiped clean … then it wasn’t you that did it. Not really.”
The idea that we are stories we tell ourselves is explored further in The Red Queen's War, and extended to include the notion that we can fall into the stories that others tell about us and become trapped within them.
I'm not claiming to have written great literature here. I am simply pointing out as others have before that literary fiction and SFF overlap hugely. If you write a book that is all about story and plot, that's not literary fiction. If you write a story where in addition to the plot you also explore themes, focus on character, and try to use the unfolding events to cast light on some question concerning the human condition ... then you are writing literary fiction regardless of whether the characters in question are holding a sword, or a laser gun, or casting a spell. To say otherwise is just snobbery and prejudice. The only question of any importance in this context is not whether the novel is wearing the trappings of SFF or set in the real world but simply whether it is good literary fiction. As a reader of fantasy you are exploring a genre that has many examples of good literary fiction within it. Enjoy.