We all know about the classic dichotomy identified by some fiction sommelier from ages past: there is Literary Fiction, and then there is Genre Fiction. One of them is brilliant and insightful and worthy of consideration as art, and the other one is the bookbinder’s equivalent of Two-Buck Chuck.
This is something that has always smelled like bullshit to me, so I largely ignore it. If I want plucky space lesbians and magical spears in my stories, that’s my own business, and anyone who tries to tell me that I’m wrong deserves an impromptu testicular exam from a torque wrench. Similarly, anyone who tries to tell you, for instance, that you’re wrong for wanting profound, real-world tragedy in your stories can also feel free to book an appointment with Torque Wrench, M.D.
Recently, though, I’ve seen deeper down the rabbit hole. It turns out that this shit is fractal, all the way to the bottom, with schisms from hell to breakfast. The one that has really come to my attention is a divide within the very fabric of the tenuous, ill-defined netherhell of Genre Fiction, where I pass my time quite happily with the aforementioned plucky space lesbians and magical spears.
This division is between Message Fiction and everything else.
I do have to say that this was only something I learned of due to the shenanigans of Certain Individuals regarding a Certain Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, neither of which I’m going to name here because if this blog gets fucking famous I want it to be because I’m a brilliant sonofabitch with incisive commentary, a scintillating turn of phrase, and a brilliant sense of humor, not because it gets legendarily shat on by said Certain Individuals.
So let’s start with a definition of terms. Message Fiction, as it turns out, is any kind of speculative fiction that has, at its heart, some kind of societal, political, or moral commentary—a message, whence it gets its name.
The flip side of the coin is what I’m going to refer to as Ray Gun Fiction, mostly because I can’t find a better or more convenient way to refer to it, and I’m using enough capital letters writing this as it is, so “All Other Genre Fiction Ever” is out of the question. Anyway, Ray Gun Fiction is all the speculative fiction that has, at its heart, only good, wholesome adventure to impart to its readers. None of that messy moral or political nonsense.
I said before that this shit is fractal. By which I mean that it repeats the established pattern at a lower level of organization. It’s drawing battle lines where there are no battle lines, just like with the Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction kerfuffle. The only perceptible difference is that the people drawing the line are from the Ray Gun Fiction side, which is a complete reversal of the typical Genre/Literary standoff (in that the people from the “entertainment” side are the ones being douchebags about it re: Message Fiction).
So here’s the thing. We’ve all eaten the fucking Fruit of Knowledge of Genre and Literature, right? It was probably a cantaloupe, or something. You get to college (undergrad, grad, doctoral, whatever) or you get an agent or you mail a story to a magazine and out of nowhere somebody shoves this goddamn cantaloupe in front of your face and they’re like “EAT IT OR I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL END YOUR FAMILY”
So you eat the cantaloupe, and suddenly you have the Knowledge contained within, and, like Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time, you behold the stark line between Genre and Literature, between escapism and profound thought. At that moment, the world is no longer full of Stories. You’re not in Eden anymore. You’re out on your ass, a fig leaf trying desperately and in vain to cover your crotch luggage, and you’re watching eldritch abominations with flaming swords close the gates behind you with a horrible, final CLANG, and in the whole world you know only that there is Literature and there is Genre, and never the twain shall meet.
That is bullshit. So you know what I say?
Fuck that cantaloupe.
Not literally. But if you’re into that sort of thing, I have an excellent Japanese comic I can recommend.
What I mean is, how about we sit back and put down our pitchforks and see that the world is full of just Stories, and that the only real distinction that exists is between Good Stories and Bad Stories. Because anything else is standing before Solomon going “HOKAY” and chopping the goddamn baby in half, leaving the beardy guy on the throne to go “holy shit you guys I wasn’t for serious.”
I don’t know about you lot, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have Conan the Barbarian in it, and I wouldn’t want a world that doesn’t have One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I sure as shit wouldn’t have anything to do with a world where Ender’s Game and Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr novels weren’t allowed to coexist.
So how about this: let’s all just love Stories and strive to tell good ones.