This week sees the release of Colson Whitehead's zombie novel Zone One, and he's been doing a slew of interviews in which he affirms that reading science fiction and comic books (especially H.P. Lovecraft) made him want to be a writer.
Talking to the Atlantic, he says the distinctions between science fiction and "literary" books
don't mean anything to me. They're useful for bookstores, obviously. They're useful for fans. You can figure out what's coming out in the same style of other books you like. But as a writer they have no use for me in my day-to-day work experience.
I was inspired to become a writer by horror movies and science fiction. The fantastic effects of magic realism, Garcia Marquez, the crazy, absurd landscapes of Beckett - to me, they're just variations on the fantasy books I grew up on. Waiting for Godot takes place on a weird asteroid heading towards the sun, that's how I see it. It's not a real place - it's a fantastic place. So what makes it different from a small planet in outer space? What makes it different from a post-apocalyptic landscape? Not much in my mind.
The Atlantic also has an article about the fact that Whitehead isn't the only author who's been branded as literary, who's now moving into genre fiction. The Atlantic mentions Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy and Cormac McCarthy, although they're just the tip of the iceberg. As the Atlantic notes, in the late Twentieth Century, realism was considered a key hallmark of literary fiction, which had to take place in diners and cars and suburban homes. But starting with Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and then the two McSweeney's anthologies that Chabon edited in the early 2000s, the literary world realized (or remembered) that fantastical story ideas were cool too. The Atlantic lists five reasons why authors would want to write science fiction, which don't include "because science fiction is awesome," but do include the sense that "our day-to-day lives are increasingly science fictional."
Meanwhile, over in the Guardian, Sarah Crown talks to China Miéville, who proposes doing away with the whole dreary dichotomy between lit fic and SF, and talking instead about a distinction that actually matters, between "the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement." Says Miéville:
All fiction contains elements of both drives (to different degrees, and variably skilfully). That very fact might be one way of getting at the drab disappointment of, on the one hand, the cliches of some fantasy and the twee and clunking allegories of middlebrow 'literary' magic realism (faux estrangement, none-more-mollycoddling recognition), and on the other at those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic (Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, etc). Great stuff can doubtless be written from both perspectives. But I won't duck the fact that at its best, I think there is something more powerful, ambitious, intriguing and radical about the road recently less feted. I'd rather be estranged than recognise.
So the next time someone starts talking to you about the greatness of "realistic" fiction, ask if they're anti-estrangement. At the very least, you'll have a more interesting conversation.