I’m a little late on this due to having been very busy with paying work, but allow me to point you to a post on Crooked Timber in which Henry Farrell takes issue with this lengthy article by Benjamin Kunkel from Dissent magazine.
The paragraphs that Farrell quotes sound very much like the classic LitCrit dismissal of science fiction that we are all so familiar with from the “How Others See Us” section of Ansible. If you read the whole article, however, Kunkel’s argument is a lot more complex, and I’m going to go on at some length about it.
The meat of the article (from a LitCrit point of view – let’s forget about the politics, much of which is plain silly) comes about two thirds of the way in where Kunkel explains what he means by a “literary” novel:
Lionel Trilling thought that when he gave the following description of the literary or art novel he was only repeating a commonplace: the novel, he wrote, was “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and which best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction.” Notice that Trilling says nothing about original language, sharp perceptions, or a significant order of events. This is not because Trilling was indifferent to these things, but presumably because he believed they acquired their value in fiction by virtue of revealing the complex moral, social, and psychological realities to which he refers.
I should first note that this is by no means the only definition of what “literary” means. Many writers will defend the idea of original language and sharp perceptions being important. However, it is a fairly popular idea, and it is also one that is likely to appeal strongly to a critic who is, Kunkel appears to be, is firmly convinced of his own moral superiority over the bulk of mankind.
I’m not familiar with Trilling myself, and as no actual source for the quote is given I can’t check for context, but I note also that Trilling says nothing specific about “character”. He talks instead about “life in society”, and it behooves us to remember that in any sort of secondary world novel the world itself is, in a way, a character, and can be as complex and carefully built as any living being. Kunkel, however, proceeds on the basis that Trilling is talking only about character, and makes various condescending remarks about genre fiction of the usual “they can’t write characters” type. He even notes:
In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters
as if by choosing to write (gasp!) science fiction otherwise sane authors such as Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro have somehow taken leave of their senses and thereby lost their ability to write.
However, Kunkel isn’t always that simplistic. Following on from his invocation of Trilling he writes:
In this light, genre fiction doesn’t exist in contradistinction to literature merely because of stale language, secondhand insights, or hackneyed plots. The larger difference is a failure or—less judgmentally—a simple setting-aside of the moral imagination. The literary novel illuminates moral problems (including sometimes those that are also political problems) at the expense of sentimental consolation, while genre fiction typically offers consolation at the expense of illumination.
Here he is making a point that M. John Harrison would probably agree with. Harrison can regularly be found railing against consolation. But what genre is actually about is giving the reader what she (or he) expects. A genre novel is one that unfolds in a particular way. The more “generic” (or perhaps “ossified”) a book is, the more closely it follows the expected form. As Kunkel notes, Jane Austen and George Orwell have written genre novels. They just did it rather better than most people, and consequently have been accepted as “literary”.
In places Kunkel is actually groping towards the sort of insights that Farah Mendlesohn presents in Rhetorics of Fantasy. He hasn’t quite got there yet, because dystopias are clearly immersion fantasies whereas the horror novels he likened to them are generally intrusion fantasies, but at least he’s thinking in the right direction.
The real issue here is confusion of tropes with genre. There is a (perhaps understandable) tendency for people to assume that if a book is set in the future, has spaceships in it, or whatever, then it must be a generic science fiction novel with a hackneyed plot and poorly defined characters. Not only is this an unwarranted generalization, it also misses the fact that science fiction itself is not a genre. You can write any sort of plot in a future setting: a romance, murder mystery, an adventure, a war novel, or indeed a deeply literary novel of character.
Looking specifically at Kunkel’s article, he’s right that dystopian novels are a genre. Clone novels that focus on the nature of clones may also be a genre, but clones are a trope as well and I suspect that there are lots of science fiction novels that feature clones and do not follow the standard “are clones human?” plot.
In summary, Kunkel gets it wrong, but he does so in interesting ways, and not in the simplistic manner that Farrell complains about. At the very least he was interesting enough for me to spend over 900 words commenting on his article. Hopefully you found the discussion interesting too.