Wolverton on the Limits of the Mainstream Genre

A simply fantastic (in each sense of the word) essay by Dave Wolverton. Here is the opening:

Rant Fantastic

“On Writing as a Fantasist”

by Dave Wolverton

I recently read in Tangent #17 James Gunn’s response to a question by Cynthia Ward, who asked about the dichotomy between mainstream literary standards and those of science fiction and fantasy, and asked someone to “Name names.”

I respect Gunn’s work a great deal, but I disagreed with his response, partly because I began my writing career in the literary mainstream, made my first money in that field, and eventually came to recognize that fundamentally I disagreed with much of what was being done. There are differences between my approach to writing as a modern fantasist (who makes no apologies for being a commercial writer) and the approach taken by literary mainstream writers. The issues aren’t trivial.

Cynthia asked what the earmarks are of a mainstream story, and Gunn responded by saying that its “distinguishing characteristic is that it has no distinguishing genre characteristic.”

This is of course what my professors taught me in English Lit 101. And it is somewhat true. The Western genre is defined by its setting. The Romance and Mystery genres are defined by the types of conflict the tales will deal with. Speculative fiction may be defined by the fact that we as authors and fans typically agree that nothing like the story that we tell has ever happened–though one could well argue that speculative fiction isn’t a “genre” in the classical sense anyway.

But I contend that over the past 120 years, and particularly in the last 20 years, the literary mainstream has evolved into a genre with its own earmarks. It is just as rigid in its strictures and just as narrow in its accepted treatment of characters, conflicts and themes as any other genre.

The postmodern literary establishment grew out of the philosophies of William Dean Howells (1837-1920), the “Father of Modern Realism,” who was an editor for The Atlantic Monthly from 1866-1876.

He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings–places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds.

Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.

Is it so? Can no “good” literature be written outside the scope of these dictates? More on that later.

Regardless of the lack of reasoning behind his dictates, Howells’s dictums form the nucleus of what is being taught as “good” literature in mainstream college literature courses. These dictums also provide the framework for nearly all of what is published in the largest of the mainstream literary magazines–the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and in the smaller literary journals.

Now, the realists have been so hide-bound in their views about what constitutes great literature that the work of fantasists has generally been overlooked, if not actively rejected, for well over a hundred years.

For decades no novel of science fiction, fantasy, or horror was allowed to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list, regardless of how many copies such a novel actually sold. Thus in the early 1970s a work by Stephen King that sold a million copies in a month wouldn’t even hit the list, while a book that sold fifty thousand copies held the number one position. Why? Because in New York, the work of fantasists wasn’t considered literature. (The same can be said for other genres. Romance, Westerns, mysteries–all forms of “genre” literature were considered beneath mention.) The same holds true to a lesser extent today. No Star Wars novelization has hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller list despite the fact that such books often outsell three-to-one those novels that are listed as number one. I suspect that romances generally sell much better than the list-makers would like to admit.

For the same reason, the works of fantasists have been consistently passed over for literary awards and publication in the mainstream magazines. Regardless of how original the piece is, how moving, how insightful, how enervating [sic, he means exciting], or how beautiful, fantastic literature is considered incapable of being the equal of mainstream literature.

For this reason, it’s difficult to find a university in the United States that teaches any kind of courses at all in fantastic literature (or any other genre), yet students must study realism for hundreds and thousands of hours. And in many –if not most– college writing classes across the country, students are forbidden to write fantastic literature at all.

But Howells’s limiting dictates don’t describe the worst aspects of the realist movement, which served as a precursor for our own postmodern mainstream.

The essay goes on to say:

Now, the realist and the postmodern movements had their good points, and if the movements were merely boring, I’d have no quarrel with them. But my real problem with the whole realist literary movement and its resulting postmodern spinoffs is that it was founded on lies.

William Dean Howells claimed to have been “tired” of reading fantastic literature. But how did he formulate the proscriptions that led him to define what “good” literature should be? Did he look at the best of existing literature and derive his proscriptions from that? Or through some vivid and overwhelming insight did he envision a more fertile literary landscape?

No. He did neither.

The truth is that Howells was a socialist, and he was trying to encourage–nay, dare I say bribe–other authors into writing propaganda for him. He wanted American writers to tackle economic issues, much as he did in his own fine work, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and it is significant that Howells’s literary field attained full fruition in the works of the great socialist writer John Steinbeck.

Now, I don’t have a bone to pick with the socialists. They deserve to have their own literature, just like anyone else. But Howells never did bother to put forward an objective argument when he attacked the fantastic in literature. He said that he valued literature that was true and honest, yet he himself was being dishonest.

Any nitwit can point out that literature does not have to show the world as it is in order to be true. Metaphor suffices. I believe that Howells never presented an objective argument because he knew that he was lying and that the finest literature the world has ever known has almost always been fantastic literature:

Shakespeare’s best works–The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth–feature exaggerated characters from poorly researched histories and are set in faraway lands. They feature ghosts and monsters and witches. They feature powerful characters in life-and-death conflicts. They feature everything that Howells decried.

Were they by any standard of Howells’s day, or ours, bad? Boring? Weak? Inferior? What of Milton or Homer or Sophocles? Was their work in any way inferior to that of other writers of their day?

On what grounds?

What rational basis did Howells have for trying to limit the scope of our stories?

Why should we follow the fool now?

Howells didn’t seek to understand how literature really worked; he tried instead to make it serve his political agenda.

And more! Read the rest here:
http://www.sff.net/people/dtruesdale/wolverton1.htp

Hat tip to Tom Simon

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