Lit-Fic : the genre that dare not speak its name

David Barnett has posted and excellent piece at the Guardian book blog on the way mainstream literature denies the existence of science fictional stories in its midst. But I wonder, is science fiction really the genre that dare not speak its name? Or does that plaudit really go to literary fiction?

Whilst a walk through Waterstones or a perusal of the Times Literary Supplement might make science fiction seem a down trodden and ignored genre, a surf through the modern day internet tells quite a different story. On sites like Amazon and Fictionwise science fiction is a consistent and popular bestseller. On the internet authors like Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson have a massively higher profile than any mainstream literary author. Bittorrent sites are jammed with ebooks and audiobooks from the SF genre, whilst literary fiction barely even registers. And whilst they may be guilty of piracy, they are increasingly the major distributors of media in our society. If you aren’t there, you aren’t anywhere.

At heart, the seperation between speculative fiction and literary fiction is a clash of cultures. Speculative fiction is geek culture. I don’t mean that at all pejoratively. Geeks run the world, they bought it in the mid-80’s with the profits of the information technology revolution. Literary fiction belongs to the old elites, the ones the geeks bought out. They used to run everything but these days they’ve been beaten back to a few academic institutions, snooty bookstores and the book review pages of national newspapers. And the geeks are even infiltrating there. Speculative fiction doesn’t need to be acknowledged by literary fiction, it _is_ the new literary fiction.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

10 thoughts on “Lit-Fic : the genre that dare not speak its name

  1. Great article, Damien. It is also possible that the popularity of specfic authors on the internet can be due to the fact that their readers are on average more tech-savvy than the majority of litfic-only readers. For now, at least.


  2. I tend to think that, tech-savviness notwithstanding, it’s the subject matter of litfic that tends to make it a rarefied and not widely read (or saleable) genre at this point. The lack of tech savvy actually kind of goes hand in hand with that, on a philosophical or thematic level (or something)…scifi has been marginalized for quite some time, but the world that we live in continues to grow more science-fictional, in its way. I mean, we still don’t have the flying cars yet (which I’m still deeply pissed off about…c’mon Detroit, use some of that stimulus money on really future-tech stuff [wow, I think there’s a blog post in that idea for me…hee]), but we have wearable computers and RF chips and cellphones and Emily-the-talking-GPS. All kinds of crazy stuff that does actually mediate and affect our existence and our relationships and interactions with the world and each other in important and meaningful ways. And given that a lot of social change is foundationally tech-based these days, scifi writers are actually getting better and better equipped, vis a vis the litfic folk, to write about the human condition in the here and now. Thus and so. I’m not sure that literary fiction will have a whole lot of pipelines on the internetz, not so much because there won’t be any space–the internetz are, it appears, infinitely scaleable–but because the space that they occupy, and what they build there, will not be anymore appealing in digital form than it is in dead-tree form.

    Which actually winds up being something of an inadvertant jeremiad against litfic, for which I beg your pardon…I do tend to think that those folks tend to be better with some of the rudiments of good fiction writing (character-based story, etc.) as well as formal experimentation (say what you will, but postmodernist experiments in fiction did a lot to blow the doors open for raising the literary bar and the acceptability of formal innovation across the board, and that stuff was pretty much pioneered by literary/academic eggheads).

    And it appears that I may have just written a comment that was longer than your actual post, Damien. Cheers.


  3. Here, here!
    I actually wish the two categories would stop steering at each other (Well, the literary folk seem to sneer more at the speculative folk than vice versa).
    As a writer, I tend to take from both sides. I greatly enjoy reading and writing both types. I think there’s room for speculative and literary fiction. And I think BOTH kinds should be canonized, for it’s all significant.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s