"Literature"

Last week, Canadian author and UBC Creative Writing professor Steven Galloway wrote a letter to the National Post in response to an editorial disparaging a work of Canadian fiction. Galloway suggests that the article in question puts down the work as being too “literary” or more specifically, too “CanLittish.” He goes on to say that the editorialist would have preferred something more Hollywood-esque.

Fine. I’ve not read the original article, nor have I read any of the books in question, so I’m not going to pretend I can comment about them specifically. My issue really has little to do with them. From what I understand of Galloway’s letter, he’s right on many accounts.

My objection is about “literature” in general, or more accurately, the common perception of what makes “literature.” In his objection to the editorial, Galloway seems to suggest that blockbuster-type bestsellers seemingly made purely for entertainment’s sake cannot possibly be “literature.” He says, “Most contemporary literature is overwhelmingly reflective, personal and not ripped from the headlines. And that’s the way it should be. Novels are not twitter, they are not sitcoms and they are not action movies, and the moment they are, literature ceases to exist.”

I’ve heard arguments like this before–the teacher who refuses to allow a book report to be done on a fantasy novel because it’s not “literature,” the English student who looks down on the bookshelf containing pulp fantasy novels and comic books and raises their nose to people who think The Great Gatsby is boring as hell, etc. The implication, of course, is that fantasy and science fiction, perhaps pulp mysteries, comic books, anything that could be called “genre fiction” isn’t literature, and–as a result–is not worth reading.

I don’t know about you, but I look for two things when I sit down to read: 1) something that will stir me intellectually and emotionally, and enrich my life for having read, and 2) entertainment. It’s the exact same thing I look for in a movie. Or a TV show.

dictionary.com‘s first definition of “literature” is: “1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.” Now, I’m not saying dictionary.com is the be-all-and-end-all of meaning, but in this case I think it sums it up nicely. It’s writing about the human experience.

Every single book I’ve read whose “literary” merit may be called into question explores the human experience. Every single one that I have enjoyed is intellectually stimulating and makes me reflective, and yes, they’ve been entertaining as well. The “blockbuster commercial fiction” that Galloway says is different from “literature” can be just as literary as The Stone Angel.

(Because I’m something of a diplomat and believe that most controversies in the world arise from simple miscommunication, I’d like to put out there that perhaps Mr. Galloway really doesn’t have a problem with genre fiction, speculative fiction, Hollywood-esque stories, etc., but my argument isn’t with Galloway specifically. The issues over “literature” go far beyond that. Furthermore, I have nothing wrong with traditional “literature,” as the original editorialist apparently does, just the perception of non-“traditional” “literature.”)

Furthermore, Galloway suggests that there is a general “lack of Canadian blockbuster commercial fiction.” What about Spider Robinson? Robert J. Sawyer? Ed Greenwood? All Canadian authors, all genre fiction writers, all extremely popular among their intended audiences. Do they not qualify as Canadian literature because they more often publish in the more viable American markets? Or is it because they might not exist in the same, dare-I-say elitist, circle as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje? (I should note, too, that Margaret Atwood has written science fiction . What’s the difference?)

Their work is just as literary as any other. It explores the human condition, it discusses themes of universal interest, it has deep characters and emotional impact and makes me think and, yes, is entertaining as well. Just because it takes place in space, contrasts humans to alien species or evolves in a nonexistant world of magic doesn’t make it any less compelling or literary.

In fact, those things are perhaps why I like genre fiction so much. It doesn’t take place here and now, or in the recent past in the real world. It’s different, but in its difference, it makes us relate it back to our own lives. It makes us look to the future or learn from the past. It makes us think about things we might not have considered. But overall, it explores the human condition, the human experience every bit as much as any so-called “literature.”

And yes, some fantasy novels are bad. Yes, some science fiction is crap. But so is some “literature.”

There is a pervasive bias against genre fiction in the literary world. But it’s a baseless bias. Literature is in everything–and there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Maybe if more people read genre fiction, they’d see that.

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3 comments


  1. Pingback: “Literature” (cont’d) « Words and Things

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