An intriguing essay on the arbitrary distinctions made by the literature community when deciding what books are treated as proper literature and which are relegated to the genre ghetto:
In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound. Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification, distortion and enhancement.
This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of Michael Chabon and Philip Roth; the modernist allegories of José Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro; the quasi-sci-fi scenarios of Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace; the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and Audrey Niffenegger; the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and Mark Z. Danielewski; the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and Italo Calvino; the edgy futurism of J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and the works of hosts of other writers.
Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their pulp fiction predecessors. Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even when no legitimate dividing line existed.
Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was amiss.
There does seem to be a loosening of these constraints, however. Look at the mainstream success of Neil Gaiman (whose early work fits right into the lineup of authors mentioned above) or new writers like my friend G. Willow Wilson whose book Alif the Unseen is making serious waves.
True, books like the astonishing The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi aren’t going to get the same literary attention – but then again, maybe that’s a good thing. There’s definitely a perception that “hard” science fiction or “high” fantasy are not digestible by the mainstream (even though Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter are among the most-read books of all time).