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May 03, 2005



The first books I really enjoyed reading where what you could call"genre" or "formulaic" fantasy (Robert Jordan comes to mind). I gave them up when I started reading "real" literature, and it's only in the past couple years that I've been able to go back and find quality science fiction to read.


However good his intentions the remarks were those of a fool. I remember a gifted instructor of mine who once informed me with all honesty that art could never be produced on a computer: a typewriter is the only tool for literature. Of course he didn't realize the stupidty of his remarks nor did his former who remarked on the impossibility of art being produced on a typewriter as a pencil was the only avenue to art...the quill was the only avenue to art etc.

Ralfy Acuna

I went the other way. I started with textbooks that emphasized formalism for required literature classes, then majored in business in college. After a year, I studied literature for a master's degree, where I was thoroughly indoctrinated in all sorts of "isms," with an emphasis on Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari.

After a few years, I bought a used copy of the fifth edition of Perrine's anthology. Compared to the jargon-filled theory that I went through, Perrine's writing is not at all stuffy, and his view of literature very sensible. After going through several theoretical movements surveyed in collections like those by Adams, Richter, and the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, I found in Perrine what for me is the best way of evaluating art.

For example, the argument given above--that the best art mixes "stuffy" high art and formulaic literature, or that the finest works use language that is appropriate to their content--are probably not new. New Critics gave similar points, as they saw works in isolation from others, as organic wholes that used language effectively. Perrine himself gives the same advice in Chapter 9 of his book: "First, every story is to be initially judged by how fully it achieves its central purpose." Perrine refers to "elements" in literary works, including the way language is used.

As for the need to be "surprised," Perrine has something to say about that, too, at least for "escape literature": "Each story must have a slightly new setting or twist or 'gimmick,' though the fundamental features of the characters and situations remain the same." Harold Bloom and structuralists may also question the need to be "surprised," as it is possible that all stories re-use plots and other devices.

Ultimately, works that make us happy, that make us surprised, and that use language effectively may apply to many literary works, including "non-Serious literature." Any discussion on this topic becomes moot because anyone can celebrate any literary work as long as it achieves its central purpose. For example, if a work is meant to entertain, and it does so even if it is badly written, then it is a great work of art. This is Perrine's point in Chapter 9.

The catch lies in Perrine's second point: "A story, if successful, may be judged by the significance of its purpose." In short, no matter how imaginative or well-written a work is, if future generations do not find its purpose significant, then it is soon forgotten.

Perrine does not explain in detail what "significance" means, but I think this must be answered using philosophy and the "human condition": as Mr. Cheney points out, life is short and there are too many works to read. Ultimately, no matter how much we practice self-esteem and celebrate exciting and surprising writing, that will not matter because our personal experiences will not follow suit. There are possibilities that we will one day lose our jobs or businesses, become terminally ill, lose our loved ones because of betrayal, and experience many events that will involve incredible joy and tragedy. Not all of them will be surprising and exciting at the same time, as there are some surprises that we will likely not enjoy.

Notice that the Perrine's "serious literature" have central purposes that are signicant because they address those experiences. Thus, Kafka (like Shakespeare) is great not only because he is imaginative, as there are other writers who are also imaginative but whose works are meant primarily to entertain. Kafka is great because his works force readers to ask difficult questions about their own beliefs, things they take for granted, assumptions or fantasies that they have about their work or their life, etc. And that, for Perrine, is what "Great Literature" means.

Why, then, do we escape to science fiction and formulaic fare? Probably because we want to forget that human condition that was described above. We'd very much prefer to sit down and talk about literature in a celebratory manner. For us, great literature is like great food: it makes us happy, it allows us to relish great writing, and it gives us the opportunity to find something vibrant and exciting in what we read. And there are many such literary works to choose from, just as there are many Hollywood movies and pop songs from which we react the same way.

On the other hand, much of "great literature," especially those that most people no longer read, see life as one of tragedy and sometimes despair or even absurdity. From Kafka's *Metamorphosis* to *Beowulf* to Shakespeare's *Hamlet*, the works that have survived and still remain in some literature classes see human experience in a much more somber light. They force us to see ourselves and others in a critical light.

This is probably why we see Perrine and his "serious literature" as "stuffy." It does not compare to our exciting and surprising fantasies.

Although I'd rather use a word other than "stuffy." How about "honest"?


Genre fiction plays into archetypes -- the major themes that, while not always realistic, seem to define the human experience on a grand scale. Literary fiction, to me, plays into the archetypes on a more human scale. Science fiction is largely the fight between good versus evil (something I appreciated once I got past the "science fiction is for boys" stage of my life). I think this is why genre fiction resonates with such a broad spectrum of the reading public. We like idealism.

I don't see a contradiction between reading science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and/or literary fiction. They speak to different aspects of being. Escape is as much a part of surviving as facing day-to-day reality.


"Science fiction is largely the fight between good versus evil"

I've heard this claimed about fantasy, but not SF. I think it's equally untrue in both cases. I'm also not so sure I'd agree that literary fiction doesn't deal with the human experience on a grand scale, or that SF doesn't deal with smaller stories. With a little more time on my hands, I could probably come up with half a dozen examples to dispute each of those claims.

Something that's always troubled me is the term 'escapism'. It's a pet peeve of mine. All reading is an escape. Anna Karenina is no less imaginary than Frodo Baggins or Philip Marlowe. I can see claiming that genre fiction is easier to read than literary fiction (although I wouldn't necessarily agree with that either) but I really wish someone would take the 'escapism' label out back and put it out of my misery.

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