The Lit-SF Debate Has Become A Trope In Its Own Right

Yet another literary boffin has said science fiction novels can't be literary, and it's (not surprisingly) sparked some controversy. Benjamin Kunkel in Dissent Magazine wrote a long exegesis on the difference between SF and literature — in a nutshell, literature has more complex characters and trickier dilemmas about the place of the individual in society. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber took issue with Kunkel's analysis. I had a sense that Farrell was oversimplifying Kunkel's argument, and that Kunkel was actually making some valid points mixed in with his ill-supported generalizations.

I was struggling with how to say that in a blog post, but luckily, Cheryl Morgan did it for me. Her thoughtful response to Kunkel's argument is well worth reading for its own sake, as she dissects the difference between genres and tropes. (Like, it's actually possible to write a novel about clones without doing the usual "Are clones human?" thing.) In a weird sense, the debate over literary fiction vs. SF has in itself become ridden with tropes, and Morgan does a good job of cutting through them.


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Well, I dunno. Not to compare apples with oranges, but Frank Herbert's Dune and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road were first published around the same time, and I get a better sense of what human nature is actually like from the latter than from the broad cartoony archetypes of the former. Planetary ecology, on the other hand...

Neal Stephenson once made the observation that the real litmus test of any good SF story depended on whether or not it was built around a neat idea; any other concerns, like characterization or style, was largely secondary. I don't necessarily agree with this, but it does seem to be why people enjoy SF in the first place. If you want elegant wordplay, read Nabokov; if you want to read about massive stellar engineering projects, read Larry Niven. That's not to say that a novel about a 600 million-mile space ring can't be gorgeously written, but commercial realities and reader preferences dictate otherwise.