Science Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

So obviously there are a slew of marketing reasons for which works of literature are stratified into genres. Yes, I admit that it helps for when I enter a bookstore, I am able to easily distinguish the poetry from the fiction, the nonfiction from the history, but there are drawbacks to it too. I’ve always thought that dividing fiction into such categories as literary and genre is, perhaps, terribly limiting. I see no reason why a novel or short story cannot be both literary and belonging to the tradition of a “genre” such as science fiction as well. Nevertheless, there certainly are a number of works that do just that–like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

            Ishiguro’s second masterpiece (the first being The Remains of the Day) can easily be talked about and analyzed as a dystopian novel–it does, after all, utilize a number of the standard conventions and tropes to raise important ethical questions about potential future technology–but it is also so much more than just a dystopian story. Despite the fact that the work’s characters are pretty much all clones, the book, to me at least, is much more about what it means to be a human being, the complexities of love, the difficulty of communication, and in the end, what imbues our lives with meaning. These are the feelings the book makes me consider, the aspects that resonate long after I have finished the novel. I do think the ethics of cloning is an important conversation for both now and for the future–but even more pressing is this issue of meaning for us as living, breathing individuals. In Never let Me Go, the characters struggle, as do we, to find what’s worthwhile in life–and that, I believe, boils down to the imagination. It is the imagination that works through the students of Hailsham to create art, and even if in the end it doesn’t matter, it is an exercise of the imagination that makes one a better person. Imagination, in essence, is also the starting point of empathy–perhaps the most important thing any of us can feel. It is truly remarkable what Ishiguro does in this work, and certainly blurs the difference in conventions between literary and science fiction.

            So what do I mean by saying the categorization of literature can be detrimental to literature itself? Obviously Never Let Me Go works on an infinite number of levels, but that doesn’t mean that it can still be a limiting perspective. The perspective that there is a difference between literary fiction and genre fiction separates writing into two categories that don’t have to be separate. This perspective (I think, at least) discourages one from writing something that does both, and discourages readers from discovering great writers who are pigeonholed into one shelf of a library as opposed to another. I understand the marketing reasons for dividing literature into categories, but I think from an artistic standpoint, and a reader’s standpoint, there are a number of drawbacks that come about from trying to categorize literature.

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~ by theoy on February 2, 2014.

3 Responses to “Science Fiction vs. Literary Fiction”

  1. I’m so glad that you bring up the other dimensions of this story. While I love this book for its science fiction elements, the first two times I read it (and saw the movie), I was more attracted to how the characters chose to navigate through their relationships, lives, and ever-impending completions, rather than the implications of cloning, the uncanniness of “possibles,” or issues of ownership. Reading Never Let Me Go in the context of this class has given me yet another lens to view this story, a view that has given me an even deeper appreciation for my already favorite book. I agree with your statement about the remarkable nature of the story for its ability to elicit the tragic beauty of life in an unconventional science fiction setting – it’s certainly something that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

  2. I’ve always appreciated fellow science fiction apologists. By and large, I agree entirely. Based on my experience with the genre, it generally appears that science fiction comes in two “flavors.” The first of these, and it’s well known by now, mainly involves a pulpy, exciting, largely plot-driven adventure; these are good and enjoyable, but they are often cited by those who argue that sci-fi – and its counterpart, fantasy – are “soft” genres without real literary merit. However, I’ve also found plenty of authors who, in writing science fiction, mainly propose to evaluate some intriguing or controversial topic from our own society, exploding it and exploring the components which compose it. Brave New World did it with communism and social freedom; Ishiguro does it here with the ethics of cloning. Excellent post.

  3. When I went to the bookstore to buy Never Let Me Go, I looked in the Science Fiction section. I eventually found it with the Novels. After reading it, I still imagine it could be in placed in either section. Ishiguro’s imagination goes beyond categorizing. The fiction-like emotional narrative allows us to understand the science fiction side from a more human perspective. The two “genres” work together to ultimately strengthen the work.

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