SF to General Fiction: Get with the Program

Trying to catch up on my reading. In an examination of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, Michael Saler declares that the War between the States (of fiction, that is, literary and genrefied), is over. Almost over. Well, the end is in sight. (“The rise of fan fiction and comic book culture,” The Times Literary Supplement):

Genre films and books are no longer a minority interest. They top the bestseller lists and popularity polls: we are all geeks now. The establishment’s disdain for genre, and the populists’ suspicion of experimental techniques, are largely things of the past. Generations weaned on cultures “high” and “low” have become the producers and arbiters of the arts, enabled by the expansion of the internet since the early 1990s.

In the Guardian, sf writer Charles Stross (Halting State, 2007) tells general fiction to get with the program, already (“Tomorrow’s everyday,” by Damian G. Walter):

“I think that if there’s one key insight science can bring to fiction,” he says, “it’s that fiction – the study of the human condition – needs to broaden its definition of the human condition. Because the human condition isn’t immutable and doomed to remain uniform forever. If it was, we’d still be living in caves rather than worrying about global climate change. To the extent that writers of mainstream literary fiction focus on the interior landscape exclusively, they’re wilfully ignoring processes and events that have a major impact on our lives. And I think that’s an unforgivably short-sighted position to take.”

I agree with Stross that fiction can’t afford to be solipsistic–that mainstream, “literary,” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it fiction should engage with the issues of the day, whether political, scientific, cultural, or some combination of the three. But this goes against what many budding writers are taught. In writing workshops, teachers will caution against topical references that will “date” the material. And young writers are especially liable to be trying to create the timeless work that will ensure their immortality. A common assumption, I think, is that the human condition is timeless, and that writing about human beings will never age. The irony is that writing about humans who aren’t engaged with the modern world ends up having a trapped-in-amber quality that is more antique than ageless.

It’s not easy for writers to engage the ever-changing world without putting a sell-by date on the writing, but it’s not impossible. Focus on the big issues, avoid brand names, keep the characters real–and above all, don’t be too literal–and it should all work out.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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