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Breaking the Boundaries between Fantasy & Literary Fiction
CarolBMT
Posted: Wednesday, July 1, 2015 7:19 PM

Recently I read a fascinating discussion between two "Literary Heavyweights" Nail Gaiman and Kasuo Ishiguro. The title of the article is "Breaking the Boundaries Between Fantasy and Literary Fiction," and you can find it here:

 

 

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121982/neil-gaiman-and-kazuo-ishiguro-talk-books-storytelling-dragons?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=0659fe078b-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-0659fe078b-305334669

 

I'd love to know what you as Literary Fiction authors and readers think. Can these boundaries be broken, or blurred? Is literary fiction somehow downgraded if that happens? Have you read the books being discussed? (I haven't.)

 


Mimi Speike
Posted: Wednesday, July 1, 2015 9:24 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I will read that post later, I'm at work now. Here's what I think:

.

Value-added fantasy can certainly be literary. What do I mean by that? A fantasy thriller (one I've recently read on another site) with the theme of evil in the world, but that says nothing meaningful about the nature of evil, uses it to drive the plot, that sort of fantasy will not impress nor hold me for long. I want to know something of the why, not only the how. That is what, for me, would push nuts-and-bolts action/fantasy into the realm of the literary.


Mimi Speike
Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 2:41 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


Well, this is fascinating, but I had a hard night, I'm way too tired to read this article carefully. A few things jump out at me. Books have different purposes. Readers want different things. Ninety percent of sci-fi is crap, but ninety percent of everything is crap.

.

Literary fiction is more likely to hack it's own path through the literary jungle. My impression is there's way too much template-thinking in genres of any stripe. This may be because genre writers read in their area of interest too exclusively, and it may be that they are too concerned with appealing to a market. I'll continue this tomorrow.

.

I'm watching Rachel Maddow now. I loved Steve Jobs for his independent thinking. He said (something like) Screw market research. I give people what they don't know they want. 

.

Thanks to Rachel, I see something that I never would have guessed I wanted. A bakery in Oregon produces Zombie-doll doughnuts, little gruesomely grinning guys, filled with jelly. Strawberry jelly, probably. So when you bit into the figure it looks like it's bleeding. Is that great, or what?

.

It's our job, as writers, to give readers what they don't know they want. We are the dreamers. Dream big. 

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 7/2/2015, 3:16 AM--


Oscar Luis Rigiroli
Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 11:50 AM
Joined: 6/17/2015
Posts: 2


Mimi Speike wrote:

Well, this is fascinating, but I had a hard night, I'm way too tired to read this article carefully. A few things jump out at me. Books have different purposes. Readers want different things. Ninety percent of sci-fi is crap, but ninety percent of everything is crap.

.

Literary fiction is more likely to hack it's own path through the literary jungle. My impression is there's way too much template-thinking in genres of any stripe. This may be because genre writers read in their area of interest too exclusively, and it may be that they are too concerned with appealing to a market. I'll continue this tomorrow.

.

I'm watching Rachel Maddow now. I loved Steve Jobs for his independent thinking. He said (something like) Screw market research. I give people what they don't know they want. 

.

Thanks to Rachel, I see something that I never would have guessed I wanted. A bakery in Oregon produces Zombie-doll doughnuts, little gruesomely grinning guys, filled with jelly. Strawberry jelly, probably. So when you bit into the figure it looks like it's bleeding. Is that great, or what?

.

It's our job, as writers, to give readers what they don't know they want. We are the dreamers. Dream big. 

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 7/2/2015, 3:16 AM--



Oscar Luis Rigiroli
Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 12:01 PM
Joined: 6/17/2015
Posts: 2


CarolBMT wrote:

Recently I read a fascinating discussion between two "Literary Heavyweights" Nail Gaiman and Kasuo Ishiguro. The title of the article is "Breaking the Boundaries Between Fantasy and Literary Fiction," and you can find it here:

 

 

 

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121982/neil-gaiman-and-kazuo-ishiguro-talk-books-storytelling-dragons?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=0659fe078b-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-0659fe078b-305334669

 

I'd love to know what you as Literary Fiction authors and readers think. Can these boundaries be broken, or blurred? Is literary fiction somehow downgraded if that happens? Have you read the books being discussed? (I haven't.)

 

I do not think that merging two distinct genres is of any value in itself. The challenge is rather to introduce fantasy within Literary Fiction in such a way that opens new perspective to readers, that somehow change the customary horizons. Fantasy is not restricted to sci-fi stuff but is anything that appeals to our right hemisphere.



Mimi Speike
Posted: Friday, July 3, 2015 11:28 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


My smug remarks above are the opinion of one whose choice is always to veer off the beaten track into the brambles. I go at it. What lands on the page mostly stays on the page. (My latest trick is to shove over-reach into comic footnotes. Give me credit for the courage of my convictions, if nothing else) I never (honestly, never) think about what genre my odd eruptions might be. When it comes time to push my thing to the market, I count on Sly's force of personality to do the job for me. (He's a cat, by the way.)

.

Critter, you've got your work cut out for you.

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 7/3/2015, 1:48 PM--


J Boone Dryden
Posted: Thursday, July 9, 2015 12:13 PM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42


I have always been fascinated by this boundary. I read, years ago, the introduction to the 2005 Best of American Short Stories, which that year was edited by Michael Chabon. No one would argue that Chabon isn't literary. Yet he has clearly and lovingly embraced spec-fic elements into his work because they are simply part of the story. His introduction laid out a distinction between "entertaining" and "enjoyable" fiction, which he defined as "fiction that meets all established expectations" and "fiction that challenges expectations," respectively (and paraphrased a bit). The distinction is powerful, though, and I embrace it wholeheartedly.

 

Literary fiction, to me, is "enjoyable" under Chabon's classification. Commercial fiction, in contrast, would be "entertaining". So the terms then become one of expectations not quality. So one can have a literary SF piece ("Fahrenheit 451") and commercial mainstream (anything Danielle Steel). The book stores are the ones who have fabricated the idea that Danielle Steel should go in the literature section (because she's contemporary mainstream) but Ray Bradbury should go in the SF&F section (because he wrote an alternate history book). I doubt many people would quibble with the statement that "Fahrenheit 451" is a work of literature. In short we've been writing literature spec-fic for decades; marketing, book sellers, and literature professors are the ones who have imposed this arbitrary boundary between "literary" and "genre".

 

So I think that answers your first question (at least my answer to it). As for whether or not fantasy or sci-fi elements "downgrade" a piece of fiction, that's all in how you write it. There are always going to be people (readers, other writers, critics) who won't understand fantasy elements because, to them, that's "escapist" and thus cannot be good literature. In my opinion, those people are not very well read, and they're poorly equipped to be giving my work criticism. (Anyone who claims that literature can't have fantasy elements but has read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and enjoyed it has subsequently lost any credibility with me). 

 

So I'll go back to my original comment: look at what you're writing and ask what you're expecting of your readers and what you're readers are going to expect of you from what you've given them. If, at the end of the piece, you've written something that establishes expectations early and meets every one of them by the end of the book, then you've written commercial fiction (with no judgement call made on that). If, on the other hand, you challenge or break those expectations by the end of the piece, then you've more likely written literary fiction. Regardless of whether it has dragons or faeries or aliens, the work should stand up to that test. There are plenty of spec-fic works that do both.

 

Hope that helps the discussion

CarolBMT
Posted: Thursday, July 9, 2015 2:42 PM

The whole subject of genres exists because bookstores have to categorize books in order to shelve them where people can most readily find them. The categories every bookstore and publisher use are BISAC* categories developed and revised by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). In fact, every published book that is to be sold in a bookstore or on Amazon (for example), must be categorized using the BISAC Subject Category Codes. The online forms demand it.

 

 As a purely practical matter, Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, is categorized as Science Fiction and Fantasy because it has dragons and a fantastic Arthurian setting of sorts.

 

Neil Gaiman admires it; James Wood, reviewing it for the New Yorker, does not.

 

The entire discussion of genre or literary arises because retailers need to convey information about a book's subject matter to readers.

 

*Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee.

 

 

 


RAVI RANJAN GOSWAMI
Posted: Thursday, July 9, 2015 2:51 PM
Joined: 4/2/2015
Posts: 2


For me literary fiction is some thing fictionalise out of possible realities where as fatasy can include things unreal,dreamy,wishful and of out of the world.
J Boone Dryden
Posted: Friday, July 10, 2015 10:57 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42


@Carol: To me the argument that categorization is necessary is flawed. If categorizing books by subject matter really were the goal of the marketing people at retailers, then books like "Handmaiden's Tale," "Oryx and Crake," and "The Road" would be in the SF&F section because they take place in futuristic societies. A quality judgement has been placed on certain books (i.e., that some books are better than others simply because they don't have fantastical elements in them), which is what I was calling into question.

 

You asked whether or not the line between literary and "genre" could be blurred, and I argue that it always has been. Plenty of popular literary fiction uses tropes of the speculative fiction world and gets away with it. In the same way, and often overlooked by most critics, professors, and retailers, spec-fic works consistently cross into the "literary" category--not because there is a difference in how the books are written but more so because of who the intended audience is.

 

If, as a practical matter like you say, that Ishiguro's book is placed where it is because of dragons, then I would challenge you to ask why that is. My argument is because the categorization system is a bit lazy. The presence of dragons does not make a book Fantasy, just as the presence of a space ship doesn't make a Science Fiction story. In order for a story to blend the lines between Literary and Fantasy--as you asked--one needs to understand that the distinctions between those two things are fluid to begin with.


 

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