Earlier this month, Walter Mosley wrote a case for genre for Tor.com.
Alternative fiction is not comfortable, not expected. There are heroes, yes, but the world they bring us stinks of change and betrays all the faith that we once had in the sky above our heads and the ground below our feet.
This is what I call realistic fiction; the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world.”
I’m not sure that all speculative fiction does that. Some of it is backward looking — nostalgic, a reminder of virtues that if not widely held were more widely valid in the past: things like honor and courage. But just because that type of fiction exists, doesn’t mean that Mosley is wrong: the core of both science fiction and fantasy are engaging in speculation (thus the term speculative fiction [a term that is not loved by all, but one that I find useful]) and one can’t do so, I don’t think, without engaging with where are, where we have been and where we are going as a society. And, of course, literary fiction can be nostalgic as well.
And I think what Mosley is saying is that to engage in the fantastical, the speculative is to remind us that we can imagine other lives, other worlds, other timelines, other technologies than these. If literary realism gives us a snapshot of time, attempting in so doing to provide some sort of psychological portrait of a segment of society, speculative fiction gives us moving pictures. A dynamic view. Motion. Change (a world that stinks of change, according to Mosley).
I posted about this issue last year when Lev Grossman defended genre in the Wall St. Journal. What I like about Mosley’s post is that he doesn’t engage in any of the three weak defenses that we often see. He also speaks not just of achievements but also potential. I think this is also good. No literature ever fully arrives — that’s why we keep writing and reading.
In that previous post, I made the point that genre fiction should be defended “by showing what you can do that other genres can’t.”
I’d like to amend that statement:
I think that the onus here is on literary realism (and I do like how Mosley twists that term and claims the terms realistic fiction and alternative fiction for genre fiction) to prove what it does that other genres of fiction can’t. That is, the default position shouldn’t be literary realism, which is, after all, just a blip on the timeline of storytelling. It also can’t be an argument of degree (it does this, but better) because the argument that genre fiction ignores poetic prose or characterization or that it doesn’t experiment with structure or style or point of view is no longer true. In other words, I think we should treat genre fiction like everything that happened in the field of literature (the turn towards theory, the debates over canon, the hi-lowbrow collision) actually happened. And then we woke up from that fever dream and realized, hey, we still have all these novels and people reading them and maybe the genre lines don’t matter as much as the fact that fiction is being written and published and read.