Science Fiction vs Literary Fiction



I considered myself a science fiction writer all the way through my first novel, Pareidolia. With portals, time travel, impossible rooms, and recovered alien artifacts, there’s no way it could be anything else.

I figured I ought to have a glancing familiarity with my genre, so I assigned myself a long reading list, starting with Frankenstein and ending with the hottest new sci-fi novel of the moment. It didn’t go well.

I loved Frankenstein to the moon and back. I kept thinking of Hellraiser’s Uncle Frank and his refusal to accept the sum of all earthly pleasures. He wanted more, needed more, and wouldn’t be satisfied until he knew more. And of course by the time he got more, he probably wished he’d been a little more careful what he wished for.

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

And so I was delighted. I was willing to set aside the ridiculous notion that pretty much the entire novel was a letter within a letter, and just let it take me away. I thrilled less to Journey to the Center of the Earth but figured it was a fluke. Then I devoured The Time MachineThe Glass Bead Game, and it wasn’t until I got to 1984 that I started to wonder why I was loving some and barely tolerating others. 

I slogged on. Reading Brave New World felt like a book report assignment. I couldn’t even make a start of The Martian Chronicles or Foundation, I barely survived Solaris, and I finally caught a break with the brilliant Slaughterhouse Five

What was happening? These were old books, and I was working my way up through the 20th century, so I figured things would continue to look up the closer I got to modern science fiction. Maybe this was just a weird slump.

Except no. I put down Ubik and The Left Hand of Darkness before even making it a few pages in. I suppressed nausea during the first hundred words of Roadside Picnic before finally settling in for a rough ride in Rendezvous With Rama, a book that appeared in glowing red neon on nearly every sci-fi list. I gave up about 75% of the way through, only making it that far because the premise was so intoxicating. The prose, however, made a nutritional label for plain oatmeal look enticing. 

Next came Dhalgren, Kindred, and Shikasta. No, no, and no. I knew I was a picky reader, but Jesus Christ. Things weren’t getting better as I got closer to modern science fiction, they were getting worse! I skipped way ahead and picked up The Three-Body Problem and tried to love it. I tried a lot. But I never got there. (I had the same problem with Reamde a few years back.)

The fever finally broke when I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale. I devoured every word and rediscovered (finally) the joy of reading a book that I loved. But I couldn’t drag myself back to my list. Why did I love Frankenstein and 1984 and Slaughterhouse and Handmaid so much, and alternate between barely tolerating and hating the others with the heat of a thousand suns?

I thought back to the books I read that inspired me to start writing in the first place: The Secret HistoryGhost Story; Remainder; The Hungry Moon; Tenth of DecemberInfinite Jest. These are only tangentially horror, or science fiction, or anything else, but they all fall squarely within the category of literary fiction, and this was my ah-ha moment: not only was I not barking up the right tree, I wasn’t even on the right planet.

I skipped the rest of my self-assigned reading list and jumped over to The Crying of Lot 49 and White Noise and re-read parts of Infinite Jest and bought a hard copy of House of Leaves. Each one sent me straight to heaven. The only thing I don’t like about 2666 is that eventually it’s going to end.

So this has all been a very long exercise in figuring out that I don’t have the appetite to read books in the science fiction market, let alone attempt to break into it as a new writer. I’ve spent hours going over the hottest sci-fi reads of the last few years, looking at preview after preview, never getting more than a few paragraphs in before closing the tab in frustration. I just don’t like most of it, and that’s fine. In fact it’s good that I figured this out now, long before I start courting agents. Know thy audience, etc.

I guess I’m just surprised. I really thought I was going to feel at home in the science fiction world, or at least the parts that have literary aspirations. I’m happy to have found a handful of books that crossed the streams, but they turned out to be anomalies.

So I suppose I’m into literary fiction, but that doesn’t sound exactly right either. I don’t have patience for whatever “upmarket fiction” is supposed to be. I know there’s no such thing as literary science fiction, but I’m going to forge ahead like there is.

2 thoughts on “Science Fiction vs Literary Fiction

  1. you should read Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a series of essays (inspired by Tolkien’s essay) where she debunks stereotypes of scifi and fantasy, and shows how most of the ‘classics’ that we consider ‘literary’ now and respect greatly, like Moby Dick, started out being fantastical in nature and resemble the sci-fi genre. It’s such a tiny novella-essay book but it’s SO GOOD!


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