A New Definition for the Literary Novel

What does it mean for a novel to be "literary?" For many years, writers of science fiction and fantasy have been excluded from the gated community of the so-called "literary writers," and thus excluded from the writerly prestige afforded to its members. Members of this community have argued that "genre," or the un-literary (science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, thriller, etc.), possesses internal constraints that prevent such works from embodying the qualities of "literariness."

But such qualities have remained elusive, and for each quality that one identifies, a novel deemed to be "literary" by the establishment can be found which violates it. As a result, the buttressed borders between science fiction "genre" and realistic "literature" have begun to crumble and blur, especially since the turn of the century.

Some individuals, riding on the heels of the deconstructionist agenda, proclaimed that the border was completely arbitrary in the first place and that we should consider The Hunger Games as worthy of serious intellectual investigation as 1984, and we should put The Maze Runner on par with Brave New World. I find this view extreme. 1984 and Brave New World feel as though they contain a certain something that The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner do not. But what is that something? And is it literary?

In 1979, Darko Suvin wrote a work of literary criticism called Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which inaugurated the age in which works of science fiction and fantasy could be taken seriously by literary critics. It did so by providing a framework for interpreting such novels that was compatible with existing literary criticism.

Suvin's framework hinges on the concept of the "novum." A novum is a way in which the world of the novel differs from the reader's reality. But not just any difference can be a novum. If a novel were to depict a pharmacy at the corner of Third Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle, when it's Macy's in reality, then such a difference would not be a novum. A novum, crucially, must be a difference that causes the reader to reconsider her own interpretation of the real world.

In 1984, the systematized destruction of all interpersonal relationships that might constitute a force of power capable of standing against the entrenched hegemony is a novum–it causes the reader to consider whether or not the entrenched hegemonies of the real world are behaving in an authoritarian way. In Brave New World, the failure of the protagonist to integrate himself into a world of homogenized bliss and pain-avoidance is a novum–it causes the reader to wonder if his own society is anesthetizing its population into subservience.

What are the novums of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner? Do they possess any? What do they teach us about ourselves? It's not enough for a novel to simply project enjoyable images into our brains (unless we want to live in the kind of society that Brave New World depicts). Novels must be capable of teaching us something about ourselves. This is the real difference between "literary" and "non-literary," as opposed to the socially-constructed, artificial difference of "realism" and "non-realism." 

Carl Freedman took this line of thinking a step farther in his book Critical Theory and Science Fiction. He constructed a compelling argument that Suvin's novum could be applied to the entirety of literature, regardless of genre. Works of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller, realism, all of them could be interpreted to be successful literature based on the salience of their novums, and how critical of the real world those novums enabled their readers to be. Under Freedman's interpretation, the division of "literature" and "science fiction," becomes "literature" and "literature on steroids." A well-written science fiction novel, to Freedman, has more potential for literariness than the best-written realistic novel.

This stance of Freedman's raises a very obvious question. If science fiction is better equipped than realism to tackle literary aspirations, then why has science fiction been relegated to its "ghetto" status for so long? Why is he the first scholar to notice this in the century and a half since Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein? His answer is startling. Science fiction has been ghettoized and its best works have been either ignored or fitted awkwardly into realism because the entrenched hegemony has a vested interest in undermining the authority science fiction is capable of wielding. Real science fiction must, by its very nature, call into question the legitimacy of the power structures of the real world. Those who find themselves at the top of the "literary" power pyramid have either consciously or unconsciously dismissed those works which threaten their positions, and it just happens to be convenient to group such works into a "genre" which by definition is, supposedly, lesser and "unliterary."

I side unabashedly with Freedman. A "literary science fiction novel" should be referred to as simply a "good novel." It must engage its reader's imagination and bring about a new ("novel") awareness of reality via Suvin's novum. Such a novel exists within a continuum of other literature. It is aware of where literature has been, and drives literature in a direction the author is aware of trying to drive it. It does not project puerile images within a vacuum.

Despite the growing popularity of mainstream science fiction and fantasy, I see many signs that most of this work is not really science fiction in Suvin or Freedman's sense. I see Google Plus groups which purport to be about writers and writing, but whose participants are uninterested in discussing novels. I see an Amazon ebook ecosystem composed almost exclusively of homogenized book products, and a disturbing dearth of "novels" in the true sense of books that expose something new. And most upsettingly, I have participated in writing critique groups who encourage their members to consider "action" (which actually means sex and violence) and "pacing" (which actually means the obliteration of all salient environmental and emotional details) above all else. I see a general conflation of "popular," "profitable," and "good" throughout our entire culture.

I wish to open up a new discussion: Is it possible that the entrenched hegemony of our modern world has embraced a new means of delegitimizing science fiction? Are we being bombarded with mundane, boring realism dressed up in science fiction's clothes in order to deflect attention away from what real science fiction does well?

As a science fiction writer, I can imagine and have to hope for a better world. It is my firm belief that one day humanity will experience an age in which the general perception of literature aligns with Freedman's analysis. It will be one in which "good literature" and "science fiction" are understood to be one in the same.

Suvin, D. (1979). Metamorphoses of science fiction: On the poetics and history of a literary genre. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freedman, C. H. (2000). Critical theory and science fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.