The first form of fiction was, arguably, fantasy, what with mythology going back to 4000BCE and the first written fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh written circa 1200 BCE. Some of the first English fiction were also fantasy, such as Le Morte d’Arthur written c. 1470. Yet fantasy not still not considered “literary” merely because it’s fantasy.
Somewhere in the mid 1800’s, realism took over the halls of academe, and anything which took part in the fantastical was deemed “less than.” This might have been the logical extension of the “age of reason” or the “enlightenment” where science began to supplant religion. Fantasy was kicked to the corner and designated as children’s literature or inferior “genre-fiction” (as if realism itself wasn’t a genre – but the true natural state of literary fiction). Despite this, fantasy and science fiction’s popularity persisted.
Eventually, in the 1960s, the academy begrudgingly allowed some science fiction to be taught, but almost exclusively from male writers, and fantasy was still disdained. While many science fiction and some sci-fi fantasy anthologies are published by textbook publishers, no fantasy anthologies are.
A few years ago, I was attending a session on teaching creative writing at AWP (the Associated Writers and Writing Program conference – one of the largest of its kind in the US). Teachers were saying they routinely forbid their students from writing “genre fiction.” They bewailed the fact that student writers of science fiction and fantasy wanted to spend a lot of time on “world building,” as if this was somehow an inferior pursuit to character building, which is one of the core criteria of literary fiction.
My contention that what makes fiction good or bad literature has nothing to do with genre (including regionalism, romance, westerns, as well as science fiction and fantasy). It has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.” After all, the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.” Some good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension, such as the work of Karen Russell an Aimee Bender. I allow my students to write whatever they want to write, and I encourage experimentation, but inevitably, the question arises, what is good literature and how do we steer our students toward it?
I contend that we call things literary if they meet three or more of the following criteria:
1) They generally put character before plot
2) they have more ideas per page
2) they push deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life
3) they don’t offer easy answers or neat endings
4) they make us think and wonder
5) they use language originally and precisely,
6) When they make use of characters (as not story forms do- such as allegory) — the characters are real and complex.
7) Their structure is inherently congruent with the content
The more a writer resorts to clichés and truisms, the less their fiction reflects the complexity, beauty and surprising contradictions of life. This doesn’t mean that all literary fiction need be dense. There’s beauty in a great plot.
But this is not something you should ever think about when writing a rough draft. Save these thoughts for the end of the writing process.
I do not condemn that which some consider mainstream or genre fiction. Having written a few novels, I applaud anyone who makes it to the end with something resembling coherence. It’s hard work. Also, a lot of people don’t like what we, in academe, call “good literature.” It’s often dense, plodding, demanding, esoteric, and downright boring.
All kinds of writing is needed in the world, and each have their place. Some of my students are absolutely besotted by their fantasy, romance, and horror fiction, writing many novels. I would never want to squash that enthusiasm.
Here are some links to what others have said about this: