Literary Fiction

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The above link is to a Washington Post review of a ‘literary’ novel by R. F. Kuang.

I checked Kuang’s Wikipedia entry. She has previously published fantasy. I wonder if part of the problem — for this reviewer — is SFF does not focus on character the way ‘literary’ fiction does. Someone trained in SFF may not develop characters to the satisfaction of a literary reviewer. In addition, the reviewer here complains of info dumps, which are often okay in SFF — and necessary and interesting. Though they are less interesting if the dumps are about the contemporary real world. (I am struggling with a dim memory of a story, I think by Lin Carter, which is a parody of Gernsback’s Ralph 24C41+. The protagonist rides a contemporary NY subway, while explaining how the subway works and what a scientific miracle it is. The story is very funny.)

To a considerable extent, SFF is about information: a different society, strange creatures, weird ideas… The people often exist not as complex personalities, but as guides to the environment and the ideas.

And you describe an environment differently if it isn’t real. The reviewer here complains that Kuang doesn’t do a good job of describing the publishing world as it is. I bet Kuang doesn’t know enough about the publishing world. However, accuracy of detail and the conviction that the author has gotten the real world right does not work in SFF. Rather than recording the real world, the SFF writer invents.

I love Jane Smiley’s Moo, because it’s about a Midwestern land grant university. I grew up in a Midwestern land grant university. Smiley is 100% correct (and funny as hell) about department secretaries. But the pleasure of recognition is different from the pleasure of surprise.

Having written that, I remember that much realistic fiction introduces us to new places and societies. Dickens’ London is very different from the American Midwest circa 2000. I think the question of how SFF is different from Dickens is too complex for me right now. And I tend to think of Dickens as SFF. Remember the magalosaurus dragging its way up a London street at the start of Bleak House. The line between the animate and inanimate is often unclear in Dickens. Houses are described in human terms. Humans are described as being like machines. (I can’t remember the name of the guy in one novel who chugs around like a steam tugboat.)

I am going to stop here. I have to go out and buy asparagus at the Farmers’ Market.