Fiction, Genre, & Language

A fun episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook recently featured some writers of fantasy-style fiction novels that have received great acclaim from reviewers. As a not-so-secret science fiction geek, I was stirred a bit by the shock of Tom Ashbrook as he navigated the waters of fantasy creatures in literary fiction, proclaiming that the likes of John Updike would never stoop to such levels before being reminded by his guest of The Witches of Eastwick. Underlying my not-so-secret SF love is my fantasy geekiness, my readings of all of Ann Rice’s novels as a teenager, to say nothing of The Lord of the Rings, anything by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and a series of role player fiction novels from England as a child.

Given this context, it is gratifying to hear the subject of genre being discussed in the mainstream media and the blurred margins between genres, or subgenres, like literary fiction and fantasy fiction. I have been particularly interested in the mutable nature of prose since the A Million Little Pieces debacle and subsequent meltdown by Oprah – why did she care so much about the classification of a text she found moving, a text now described by Wikipedia as a “semi-fictional memoir?” While Oprah was clearly run over by this semi, betrayed and hurt, I see opportunity for telling the story-truth explored by writers like Tim O’Brien for decades. While it may have been more honest for James Frey to portray his life story as a fiction piece, I don’t think it matters much if the audience walks away with the message in the end. Additionally, I see all fiction as life experiences twisted and woven into something more true and distilled than the original, broken chain of events. So, if Glen Duncan explores the human landscape through the prism of  werewolf character in The Last Werewolf, that’s literature. Nonfiction is also literature. Literary giants like Kurt Vonnegut, Updike, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth all explored science fiction and fantasy elements as ways of uncovering truth about the human experience. As we explore what genre is and isn’t, fuzzy boundaries allow more individual freedom to choose what we love to read and write while still stretching our philosophical conceptions of humanity’s struggles, mundane and timeless.

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