Traditional SF vs. Literary SF: Which is better?


Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen recently wrote a retort to the Crotchedy Old Fan’s blog post about why traditional science fiction is better than the “literary” vein. I’ve not read the Crotchedy Old Fan’s post, and briefly scanned Larry’s, but having seen the question, I have to wonder: can such a determination actually be made?

I’ve always assumed that science fiction is a genre of many faces, spanning from the humorous to the serious, complex to the simplistic, adventuresome to socially aware. While such things may not be unique to the genre, they are powerful features that make this genre worthy of study on the academic level. But I’m not talking about academics here; I’m talking about whether traditional science fiction is better than its “literary” cousin.

Before I can properly discuss this subject, I think it’s important to define the terms I’m working with. I don’t know if the Crotchedy Old Fan gave any proper definition for what he meant by “traditional” or “literary,” but it seems ridiculous to attempt any discussion on this subject without having a firm grasp on what we’re actually talking about.

I consider “traditional” science fiction to be those works of fiction that intentionally evoke awe or comprise the fiction styles of such authors as Poul Anderson and Robert A. Heinlein on the classics end, and Tobias S. Buckell and John Scalzi on the more recent end. “Literary” science fiction is more difficult to define, and it is a genre that, regardless of any arguments to the contrary, overlaps with the “traditional” vein. “Literary” SF deals directly and obviously with social or technological issues, with less focus on the adventurous side of SF and more focus on characters and emotional issues. There are probably other features worth considering, but for now, I’ll get to the point.

Any attempt to say “this kind of SF is better than that kind” is, to be honest, arbitrary at best. We can argue until we are blue in the face, but in the end it will always come down to personal preference. Some people like the traditional stuff, and others prefer the “literary” goodies. That’s the way it is and the way it always will be. Neither is necessarily better than the other; both contain good and bad books, great and lesser writers.

And one cannot forget the overlap, because so much of what is considered “traditional” by many SF purists also cross into the “literary” world. SF has made its home in every style of literature we know precisely because literature itself constantly changes. Years ago people would have laughed at the idea of a science fiction class; now, they are becoming more and more common. The pulps are being treated with the same focus and care as Charles Dickens, thus inserting such works into the world of the “literary,” wherever that may be. Strangely, this is how literature in academia works. There is always a fight, a push to keep the current hated literature out, to keep it shoved into a dark corner with all the other “trash” and “garbage” of the day. Strange how as centuries pass, things change. You’d be surprised to find out exactly how literature has adjusted over the years, and we’re now seeing that change in academic circles in regards to SF.

My point is, I think, that even the term “literary” is a pointless term. As much as I might want to define it, it’s meaningless when put against the backdrop of literature. Literature’s persistence to change makes any sort of logical determination of quality impossible. And if the term “literary” is pointless, so too is “traditional.” Neither is necessarily better than the other, because both change with time. Traditional SF doesn’t technically exist, because I doubt even those of us who claim to like it have any idea what it actually is. My definition will likely be contested by some and accepted by others. The same is true of “literary” SF, because, no matter how hard we want to argue for a category that can be defined as “literary,” it will never become true.

And that means asking which one is better is also a stupid thing to do. Neither can be better. Personal preference rules the day, and always will. Besides, SF has had a hard enough time trying to argue its way out of the place the Academics placed it in all those years ago. Acknowledging that we all simply have different tastes (traditional and literary) might save the time already being wasted on arguing over the subjects of purity and superiority in a genre that has and always will be a vast spectrum of styles and ideas.

But don’t take my word for it. My opinion is not, by any means, the only one worth considering. Let’s hear what you have to say about this subject.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

5 thoughts on “Traditional SF vs. Literary SF: Which is better?

  1. Any attempt to say "this kind of SF is better than that kind" is, to be honest, arbitrary at best. We can argue until we are blue in the face, but in the end it will always come down to personal preference.

    That was my first thought when I heard about this debate. When it comes to something as subjective as literature, "better" is nearly impossible to define. It depends on the individual and their personal preferences.

    Perhaps we can make some qualitative distinctions based on things like clarity of expression or the author's grasp of basic grammatical principles, but those will vary from work to work and author to author. There are often some stylistic similarities between works that fall into particular categories, but it's impossible to say that those similarities are universal within each category.

  2. Memory: That's exactly what I was thinking. Quality of the writing, where it descends into crappy-ville, is really the factor that can be used to determine "goodness." But, that doesn't touch on this question/argument at all, because it deals with literature as a whole, rather than a specific subgenre.

  3. And you summed up very nicely the entire long range point of my original piece.

    I wrote it in response to Adam Robert's rant about how poorly the nominees for the Hugo Award (in their entirety) represented the genre.

    He discoursed on 'literary' subjects, named a few novels that he considers to be 'literary' SF and stated that, because Hugo Nominees were not in that category (and obviously had never been – he was very comprehensive), the award – and the folks who voted for it – was flawed.

    I can't begin to tell you how much fun it has been to watch the links to the article spread – and the ensuing discussion(s) surrounding it.

    Your point about the focus of academia on literature was spot-on: what is garbage today is taught seriously in classes the next generation. (Look at the attention that PK Dick is now getting from academia; previously, he was a 'science fiction hack'.)

    I can't begin to express how arrogant I felt Robert's piece was. He not only reserved the right to judge the merits of science fiction as a whole to academia, he reserved a special place for his particular brand of interests.

    The imprimatur of academic credentials is but one of many ways that someone could find themselves in a position of critiquing the field (at least quasi-legitimately) – but to hold that out as the ONLY way of looking at and evaluating success is nothing short of Napoleonic.

    Robert's did not define his terms either – so I felt no need to define mine. If I were pressed, I'd have ones entirely different than yours: traditional SF is comprised of works in which the author's intent, AND the reader's reception, is focused on things that evoke that sense-of-wonder and create the willing suspension of disbelief. Literary science fiction is comprised of works in which the author's intent is to 'play with words' and utilize a 'science fictional setting'. The primary authorial focus is on crafting language and illustrating how well you can do so. The primary authorial focus of a science fiction novelist is to tell a ripping good yarn that makes their audience say 'wow, cool idea'. The audience responds to literary SF with 'nice writing, interesting characterizations, well-crafted sentences.

    That Robert's had to ignore works like Delany's Dhalgren (which is BOTH a traditional SF AND literary SF novel) in order to make his point I think more than demonstrates the paucity of his claim.

    In the long run, there are only two reasonable, subjective things you can say about any literature, but particularly about science fiction:
    1. I (meaning the person making the statement) think this story is a science fiction story (based on my own internal defintion, whatever that may be)
    2. I (same as above) liked it (or didn't like it).

    Critical analysis of literature is not done to determine whether or not something ought or ought not be nominated for an award.

  4. Crotchedy: I think Robert's problem is that he wants the Hugo's to be something that they are not. They are fan votes, and he has to come to grips with the reality that fans will vote for what they like. It just so happens that a hell of a lot of fans like stuff he doesn't find to be all that great.

    But we need awards that are run like this. There are dozens of prestigious, judged awards out there. The Hugo's allow fans to be involved in the voting process.

    Then again, my understand is that Mr. Roberts isn't a fan of awards in general, so it doesn't come as a surprise to me that he would criticize the Hugo's. That said, I won't be boycotting his work. He knows the genre better than most people (he's written some damn good books analyzing the genre), and I'm sure he writes great stuff. At least his faults are minor and don't hurt anybody, unlike authors like Orson Scott Card, who has taken it upon himself to be science fiction's resident right-wing religious nut…

    And I want to be clear that I did not read your post. I read Larry's post in response to yours, and then took it upon myself to discuss the question, rather than what was being said there. So hopefully this post did not seem like an attack on you in any way, because it was never intended to be.

    I think you illustrated my point about definitions perfectly here: we don't even agree entirely on what "traditional" and "literary" SF are. And, to be honest, I think the term "literary" is one of the most idiotic terms used in literature anyway. Nobody can agree on what it means and half the time the stuff people say are "literary" don't even fit their rigid definitions. I use the term to reflect a certain "seriousness" in writing. I like to think of writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany as "literary" SF writers, but in a good way. They write damn good SF yarns (as you so succinctly put it), while digging into the characters, into aspects of the story that might otherwise have been ignored in exchange for plot points.

    But, anywho. Thanks for the comment!

  5. , I didn't see it as an attack in any way, nor did I see the OF blog's response to be one either.

    I'm fond of tossing things out there to see what happens (kind of – what fish float to the surface?).

    In this particular case I was engaging in a degree of satire, so I'm not surprised to hear that people found fault with my "argument".

    And yes, I entirely agree: "literary" is a term that has no value at all. So far as I'm really concerned, it means the same thing as 'words written on paper in some semblance of a coherent manner' (and even that definition has exceptions).
    Traditional SF is, I believe, a much stronger potential definition – at least each of us can point to what we mean when we use it, though the list of authors and books will vary.
    In the long run – I don't use award lists as my suggested reading list – but I do really enjoy it when people that I know and like, or works that I know and like, win them.

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