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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Triumphant Return to Genre

Back in September, I wrote—what has become known here at HFR as my opus magnum—on science fiction and its place in the literary world. To recap: I have a deep respect for the genre and take it as an insult whenever it's relegated offhandedly to "genre" fiction meant for the masses rather than the discriminating, literary mind. There's bad fiction everywhere and no one "genre" holds the corner market for it. It's my personal opinion that science fiction doesn't get the time of day from critics, reviewers, and academics out of ignorance, prejudice, and your garden-variety snobbery. But this argument has already been made. There has been, dear Reader, some new information that has come to my attention and I'm very excited to share it with you.

Back in 1998, the Modern Library developed two lists of the Top 100 Novels, all written in English and between 1900 and 1999. The first was their own and the second was voted on by over 200,000 readers across the country. In the first list, five—count 'em, five—could be considered outside of mainstream "literary" fiction and all five were either science or speculative fiction. The list that the Readers devised, however, showed a very different story. There were cross-overs, of course, like Lolita and The Great Gatsby, but far fewer than half of the books were "literary." There was almost an equal number, in fact, of science/speculative fiction titles as there were literary (approximately 35/35), with the remainder spread out among fantasy, horror, and magical realism—all of which were painfully absent from the Library's list. Only three of the top ten are firmly placed within the "literary" canon. I also found it interesting to note that there were far more women authors on the Readers' list than there was on the Modern Library's. Harper Lee's seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, did not make the Library's list. Four of Ayn Rand's most essential novels made top ten for the Readers but she's nowhere to be found by the Library. Charles de Lint, Robert Heinlein, John Irving, Stephen King, and Thomas Pynchon also made significant appearances on the Readers' list.

These lists are perhaps the most poignant demonstration of the disconnect between the Canon and what people are actually reading I've ever found. Is this evidence that the people who are constructing the Canon, the academics, are not quite as well-read as they think they are? Maybe. Does this show that readers will go for an easy story over an intellectual one? It's possible. Stephen King once equated his books with a Big Mac and fries, but anyone who has read his work (mostly the early stories) knows just how challenging, thoughtful, and imaginative he can be. And Pynchon is famous for asking, and living up to, the question why reading should be easy, but his presence on the Library's list is nill. Having read a significant number of titles on the Readers' list—and, admittedly, not quite as many on the Library's—I would agree with a lot of the selections and, since it comes from the collaborative efforts of over 200,000 readers, I think it carries a lot of weight. I don't think we should use popular reading taste as our first and last compass to find great literature, but it is certainly instructive—as both a reader and a writer.

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