Some thoughts on ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ literature and Margaret Atwood and stuff

The idea of genre in literature can get spiky and personal and has more to do with credibility and tradition than with easily being able to find books on a shelf. Why else do we make a distinction between ‘literary’ works and ‘popular’ works? Between ‘classic’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction?

The occasion for this article is the quick glance I’ve just cast over my own bookshelves and the realisation that my own shelving system, although detailed and organised — and not-to-be-messed-with in the way that a person’s bookshelves will be if that person has worked too long in bookshops and libraries — is rather arbitrary and strange and seems to have been conceived with less conscious decision by me than it seemed at the time. I’m thinking here about distinctions between books of literary merit and popular genres. I’m thinking of how I’ve shelved Brave New World and 1984 in general fiction and not in the genre fiction with the science fiction of Philip Dick and Frank Herbert despite there being as good an argument for Brave New World and 1984 as SF as there is to think of Herbert and Dick as SF. I’m thinking that when you consider it for long enough it starts to seem strange to have a genre shelf at all, and I’m thinking about what it says about my own attitudes towards genre fiction that I have decided to set these books apart from general fiction (as the name suggests, general fiction includes such a wide range of books about such a wide range of things that they could all be grouped into more specific forms of fiction but aren’t). But I’m thinking too of Margaret Atwood, who is notoriously spiky about being called a science fiction writer even though a lot of her books fit certain SF criteria and who is careful to say nice things about science fiction in a way that feels like the way homophobic or racist people are careful to tell you about their gay/black friend (but with less devastating social implications; I’m obviously not suggesting that Atwood’s guilt over SF is in any way analogous to racism or homophobia). In other words I’m thinking about why I both sympathise with and am kind of sad about Atwood’s position towards science fiction.

Atwood’s attitude towards SF is telling because it reveals the widely held distinction we hold between works of merit (so-called ‘serious’ literature) and genre (or ‘popular’) fiction; and it confirms the widely held view that to be a genre writer means subscribing to fixed rules and values and conventions (a lot of genre fiction is even released in cheaper, smaller paperbacks that are called ‘mass market paperbacks’). It’s for this reason, I think, that Atwood rebels against the ‘science fiction writer’ label; it’s not that her books don’t contain a lot of SF, or that their ideas aren’t congruous to the ideas in the works of other SF writers, it’s that there is still today a stigma attached to being called an SF writer. I can’t imagine that Atwood wants her books shelved amongst the mass market paperbacks with the cheap-looking illustrations on the covers of funny space aliens, Arnie-proportioned heroes and comically big-breasted women (SF covers, it has to be said, are today much better at making the genre look more respectable, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still occasionally a stigma about the whole thing that isn’t helped by authors like Jack Vance using book titles like Servants of the Wankh):

Jack Vance Servants of the Wankh.jpg

But then I also think that Atwood on some level understands that these ideas about gimmicky covers and cheap-looking books makes visually clear that the ‘popular’ label attached to SF is not just derogatory and largely untrue but mis-leading. By any criteria you choose to judge it, SF is not a popular genre. Compared to the massive numbers of crime fiction sold every year, and even in comparison to its sister genre (to be clear, ‘sister genre’ is definitely not a real thing) fantasy, SF appeals to a limited readership. An elite readership, if you will. The view of SF as a popular genre is partly because it has for a long time followed the rules of other genre fiction but also because SF has done well when transferred to film (where it has little of the stigma and much wider appeal than it has in print). Philip Dick, who was relatively poor and ignored for most of his life, has had Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Minority Report and We Can Remember it for You Wholesale as only three high-profile examples of his work transferred to film and whose relatively high status among both SF and ‘serious’ literature is based on this fact. So then those books that transfer well to the big screen not only enjoy a readership outside that of traditional SF (and therefore are derogatorily thought to have ‘transcended’ the SF genre), they also give a false impression of a widespread, popular genre being consumed en masse. I’m sure that the relatively marginalised status of SF and its limited appeal outside of big screen sponsorship has not been lost on Atwood, a writer who enjoys more critical and commercial success (including a 2000 Booker prize for The Blind Assassin, a book that is partly a book about a science fiction book) on the general fiction shelves than she ever would have done down in the basement with the genre fiction. I’m sure also that the public perception of SF as being largely written by men for men (true until the late 1960s) is not lost on the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is itself the subject of a long-running dispute on whether or not it’s classifiable as feminist literature, never mind whether or not it’s SF.

If it seems like I’m being unfair on Atwood, bear in mind that this stuff is not just complicated, but necessary when no-one can even really decide what SF actually is (which means that Atwood can not only make the bizarre claim that her books can’t be science fiction because the things that happen in them are already possible but to then coin a neologism that will never be used by anybody except Atwood herself). And it leads me to make arbitrary decisions on where to shelve books, like putting my own Margaret Atwood books with 1984 and Brave New World on the general fiction shelves and not on the genre shelf, where it becomes clear that I’m doing it largely because Atwood herself would have a seizure if she ever came round for tea and saw her books on the genre shelf.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that Atwood’s formative years came in the late 1960s, a point in time at which female SF writers and readers were just starting to gain traction in the genre, and which makes it understandable that Atwood wanted to get away from the whole label and stigma and marginalisation. So I sympathise with Atwood because I too have clearly classified SF literature in terms of literary merit; in some way I too am saying that Huxley, Atwood and Orwell have transcended the limited critical status of popular literature and have been allowed to take up residence with more serious, more worthy literature. Atwood’s position is understandable when you consider that most general bookshops keep classic literature and general fiction in pride of place but hide the genre fiction at the back of the shop or down in the basement. But maybe you consider Atwood’s position cynical, which is likely if you consider literature worthy only in terms of its intellectual and artistic merit. I prefer to think that Atwood’s position is just common sense. And again, remember that in 1969, when Atwood’s The Edible Woman was first released, to be seen to be a female science fiction writer could easily have felt something like commercial, critical and artistic death. Consider, for example, that many female SF writers at that time wrote under pseudonyms or ambiguously-gendered pen names (James Tiptree, jr., André Norton or C.J. Cherryh, for just three examples).

What I think is most important in all of this is not how we classify literature. While it might be admirable to want to remove the limited appeal and generally poor opinion of genres like SF, the obvious solution would be ultimately nothing more than a patronising pat on the head from the purveyors of ‘serious’ literature. The obvious solution is of course to remove genre fiction from its segregation and put it in with the general fiction, a move which requires readers of so-called ‘serious’ literature to lower themselves to the level of so-called ‘popular’ fiction. And even then it’s not clear that the distinction between the two would disappear, but that it would likely become more pronounced for having been pointed out. It also misses the point that SF readers want to be able to find SF books without having to search through hundreds of non-SF books, or that SF readers might even enjoy being marginalised (the most literally ‘elite’ of readerships, then). What’s strange about all of this is that not even poorly regarded literature like chick-lit or Jillie Cooper-esque bonkbusters have had the same bookshelf issues that genre fiction does (E.L. Grey-type mommy-porn[?!] has by-and-large been segregated in bookshops, partly because of its reputation as being poorly written but also because bookshops want people who buy it en masse to find it as quickly as possible and buy it and get out before the bookshops’ readers of proper books find out and get mad). All of which really just shows that notions of serious and popular literature have grown out of arbitrary and long-standing traditions, and that opinions towards genre fiction like SF are really just maintained by opinions that were formed way back in the 1950s by snobbish attitudes. What’s sad about all of this is that in Atwood we have a writer who has the power to really change public perceptions of SF (particularly female-authored SF) and to give it real legitimacy rather than hide behind weird neologisms and unconvincing statements that make her sound like she just thinks SF is too vulgar to be associated with. But what’s perhaps even more sad is that had Atwood not chosen to distance herself from SF back in the 1960s she would not be enjoying the critical and commercial success she enjoys today (consider, for example, Atwood’s status among the general book-buying public against that of Ursula K. LeGuin, who is well-respected in SF circles but not at all outside of them). For one, Atwood would not today be a Booker prize winner, nor would she be held in sugh high-esteem even if she was still the same ferociously great writer she is but was hidden away in the basement with the rest of the SF writers. For that reason it’s easy to see why Atwood wants to distance herself from SF and why it would have been kind of crazy for her, back in the 1960s, not to take the opportunity to do so; it’s just a shame that she had to.

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