I recently fell in love with a new series, which is a magical time in any reader’s life. I found the first book in the Science Fiction section and devoured it. It quickly climbed up the best seller’s list and, by the time I went to get the second book I found the series had migrated to the in Literature section. The content hadn’t changed. The second book was no less supernatural than the first.
So what’s the reason for the sudden move? How can something be speculative one moment and literary the next? We were taught genre as a roadmap through the written word, but the truth is that it’s anything but. Moby Dick was originally criticized as a shallow adventure story. Shakespeare is filled with the same fairies and sea monsters that would put him pretty securely in speculative fiction.
So, when we say something is literary we’re actually saying several things. We are saying the story is grounded or ‘normal’ in a way that is recognizable to us. We are not surprised by the intervention of either science or magic. If someone told us this story about themselves, we could believe them.
We’re also talking about what the story lacks – usually elements we expect in other genres, like rocketships or aliens or princesses or fairies. What we are not talking about is the quality of the writing, the emotional power of the story, or the poetics of the language. I find stories about princesses rescued from dragons rather cliché, but I feel the same way about dissatisfied English professors who fall in love with their students. I’ve seen both these stories before, and I am sick of them. However, my ability to love even these cliché ideas lies in the language, the characters, and the craft.
Beyond that, I want a story that fearlessly marches towards the boundaries of the genre and never feels the need to reassure me that it belongs to one or the other. What does that look like? To me it looks a lot like Moby Dick, a story which is infused with magic and yet the magic is never overtly discussed. It is as evident as the ocean. Ishmael never bothers to explain the ocean. We all know it’s there.
—Leslie J. Anderson