Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The question “is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?” is one that that Damien G. Walter asked last Wednesday on the Guardian book blog and one that Bram asked on his Facebook page earlier today.

My answer to Bram’s posting of the question are reposted below (sans the additional comments I am replying to) because I want some memory of what I said.

I doubt it. The best written SF often just isn’t as well written as fiction in the literary canon. Sure, some SF is, arguably, already in the canon (Brave New World, 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Slaughter House 5) but the general interests of speculative fiction readers just doesn’t encourage publishers to indulge the behaviours that produces fiction capable of breaking into the canon. Trilogies, pulp parody and obsessive attachments aren’t conducive to capital A Art.

Furthermore I’d argue that the depth and breadth of conventions of speculative fiction are too engrained in the audience that any authors who will produce canon worthy fiction won’t come solely from the speculative fiction community. See Never Let Me Go and also the works I mentioned above.

I’m writing a quick review of the BBC’s new series Outcasts and I’m tempted to say that its biggest problem is trying to reconcile its two audiences. To be a success in the UK it has to sell to everyone. To be a success in foreign markets it has to sell to SF fans and meet their expectations.

tl;dr I doubt it. The values of the literary canon and most speculative fiction are radically different.

Comments here are made by Bram about the originality of ideas in literary fictions that appear to be science fiction. Notably in the work example of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

I think that attitude of Ishiguro adopting ideas of SF without worrying what’s gone before is part of this divide. In SF it seems ideas work the same way as in contemporary art. Each new idea replaces the ideas that came before it. In literary fiction it is understood that new ideas don’t replace old ideas and are added to the pool existing ideas to be used and reworked in new contexts and with new techniques. If you like, literary fiction is happier with sampling existing material.

Some further comments were also made by others about imagination and how much more it requires to read SF compared to general/literary fiction. I articulate my position on this with the follow opinion:

The argument that people who don’t like SF have no imaginations and can’t suspend their disbelief is arrogant argument of supremacy on behalf of genre. It isn’t a thought crime, yet, to dislike stories because they have aliens etc in. (I don’t like paranormal romance because it has vampires and werewolves in. There’s a stigma I don’t want to get past there….) And certainly with the amount of visual SF in the media, it isn’t as difficult to imagine as anything else for anyone who’s reasonably literate.


  1. Bram February 9, 2011

    Good points well made Will.

  2. Bram February 9, 2011

    “The best written SF often just isn’t as well written as fiction in the literary canon.”

    What is your criteria for ‘well-written’, out of interest?

  3. Will Ellwood February 9, 2011

    @Bram – I’ll have a reply for you later. It’s a separate discussion to the question asked here, so it really deserves its own post.

  4. DragonLady February 9, 2011

    Having worked in the book trade I think that part of the problem is marketing. Marketing departments like pigeon holes,it helps them to sell books. When they see something that is genuinely cross-genre they don’t know how to sell it. I know this from experience as I write what I would call contemporary fantasy (strictly no vampires!) I’ve sent it off the various places; its been called magic realism, fantasy and fairytale. It’s also been called highly original, unfortunately too original for anyone to publish. Until people stop putting books in pigeon holes and start looking at them in terms of literary merit (and much SF is so badly written as to be unreadable, fantasy even more so) then SF and fantasy will stay firmly in the ghetto. The fans who argue endlessly about what constututes an SF or fantasy novel only make this worse. It’s not about whether the space ships are right, or if you are writing within the conventions of the genre, ie following the rules. The point is to break the rules and keep on breaking then until that becomes the norm, then break them all over again.

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