Once upon, literature told us about what it meant to be human. Tales of struggles amongst the under class (or ruling class), in the modern day or distant past explored love, jealousy and the power of the human spirit to overcome all challenges.
At the same time, genre fiction was the stuff of boy’s adventures and women’s romance. The same shallow stories told repeatedly in different times and locations—the high seas, desert cities, make believe kingdoms.
Then something happened. Reviewers and prizes continued to hail literature as superior to genre, but literature became boring. Plot became inconsequential and/or a burden. Real literature, it seemed, eschewed pacing, multi-act structures and climaxes. These elements of story craft restricted a writer’s ability to comment on life, which itself is often boring. It was as if its ability to entertain readers became secondary to how accurately a story reflected life. In other words, escapism was no longer the goal; readers should be grounded in a story that was as boring or brutal as their life.
Then something else happened. Genre fiction became important. No longer just romance or adventure, genre began using the “other” as a symbol of something in our society or in ourselves. While the Overlook Hotel in The Shining is terrifying, if you take away Jack Torrance’s alcoholism the story falls apart. The possession of Regan McNeil is terrifying, but at its heart The Exorcist is about Chris McNeil’s juggling being a single mom (in the 70s, no less) and a movie star.
In today’s genre fiction, we are seeing fabulous science fiction, fantasy and horror stories that are about something. The Other of genre fiction is used to magnify a problem in our society or in our psychology and demonstrate its effects. And not just plot, but the pages of top genre anthologies and magazines are full of stories with rich characters, clear themes, immersive settings and strong narrative voices. These stories matter not just because they are excellent stories, but because they have taken over the role of literature: Telling tales that offer both an escapist experience and commentary on the human condition.
Canada, especially, is on the forefront of this movement. Edge Publishing’s Tesseracts Thirteen is an all-horror/dark fantasy anthology, but with nary a gore-soaked, mad slasher story to be found. (Full disclouse: I have a story published in Tesseracts Thirteen.) Michael Kelly’s new anthology Chilling Tales, also from Edge, continue the theme from Tesseracts Thirteen as an all-Canadian anthology of horror and dark fantasy. Rose Fox of Publishers Weekly commented “I don’t know what’s in the water up in Canada, but it’s turning out some great writers” when it comes to speculative fiction.
It’s for this reason why it’s heartening to see things like the campaign to save the Sunburst Award (in which I took part) and the SpecFic Colloquium in Toronto this weekend. These are just two examples I know of, but imagine there must be many more going on around the world—events and awards that recognize speculative fiction has something to say.