For decades, speculative ﬁction—which encompasses the genres of science ﬁction, fantasy, and horror—has been subject to the dismissive presumption that it is somehow sub-literary and, therefore, not quite deserving of full scholarly attention or serious merit. Though rarely articulated in contemporary criticism so explicitly, this supposition remains an insidious inference throughout the “elite” literary community. Consider: how many writers of primarilyspeculative ﬁction have won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize? How many works of adult speculativeﬁction have garnered a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize? It’s not hyperbole tosay that sci-ﬁ, fantasy, and horror remain chained in the dungeon of the literary meritocracy. But why? Why is speculative ﬁction considered inferior or unequal?
Speculative fiction is approached as escapist by many critics and, because it, too, can be read as escapism, is often shrugged off as juvenile frivolity. However, the escape into the underbelly of 19th century London you experience reading Oliver Twist is no different from entering into a textual world that is set in the distant future or in an blatantly alternate reality.
There simply is no theoretical difference between the transportation of a reader to a far flung fantasy land and the transportation of a reader to the dank workhouses and orphanages of 19th century England, or for that matter, any other place and period of history. Both Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Miéville’s Perdido Street Station grant their readers escape from the phenomenological world.
If both speculative fiction and mainstream fiction are, as sources of a constructed, non phenomenological reality, open to escapist readings, then a hypocrisy emerge with regard to what is considered “high” literature.
It is true that much speculative fiction will not stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and will easily fall into the categories of pulp fiction, juvenalia, or tired pastiche. However, just as much non-genre fiction will suffer the same fate.
So much of everything ever written is disposable junk
Fawver, K. (2021). The Inevitability and Impossibility of Escapism in Speculative Fiction. Academia Letters, Article 576. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL576
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