Map of Speculative Fiction
Michael Chabon sez:
Maybe, as I suggested above, the most useful way to think of the various literary genres is not as linked but discrete rooms in a house or red-lined sections in a bookstore, but as regions on a map, the map of fiction. I would put the country of romance at the center of this map, but as with all maps there is no real center, only a set of conventions. And as with the regions on a map, on the map of fiction there is overlap: sometimes it can be hard to say where science fiction shades unambiguously into fantasy, or horror into gothic romance, or mainstream, literary fiction, into any of its neighboring genres.(thanks to Marrije for directing me here.)
A couple years ago I taught a couple of speculative fiction writing classes: one to adults and one to high-schoolers. My definition of "speculative fiction" (which broadly includes science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and supernatural horror) depended upon Darko Suvin's: that speculative fiction contains a "novum". Suvin's "novum" refers to the "new" element, the element of the world or the narrative that does not exist in consensus reality, or in the "realistic" world mimicked in "literary fiction", which I took to calling "mimetic fiction".
The novum can be something simple and singular, like the possibility of a ghost in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Or it can be complex and infuse the world, like the entirety of Tolkiens' Lord of the Rings, from the species of the protagonists to texture and objects and landscapes and languages of the world they live in.
To make this concept more clear, I created a diagram, which you see above. Please note that I created this merely to explain how the various speculative genres were (broadly) defined, not to recast the literary world with spec fic as its ruling perspective.
But the result, I think, is interesting. In dividing "speculative" from "mimetic" fiction, the one with a novum, the other without, I set up an artificial distinction that grouped the "realism" of literary fiction with the exaggerated, but nevertheless "realistic" (because they do not deal with nova) genre tropes of romance, mystery, thriller, western, etc. This in itself is pretty cool, because it forces literary fiction into bed with dirty genre (as if all characters thinking and speaking in poetic, revelatory, Joycean diction were "realistic" rather than generic.)
But more than this incidence of strange bedfellows, the diagram seperates fiction entirely according to type of content. If it deals with objects not of this world, on this map it is centered. If it deals with things herein findable, it is marginalized. "Meta" fiction, that which acknowledges a reality external to the fiction, is thrust entirely out of the diagram altogether.
It's a strange view, not the view of literature that a science fiction fan has. It's a very peculiarly biased academic view, created for a specific pedagogic purpose, and offering a terribly distorted vision of literature.
But then why "terribly" distorted? Why, in fiction, have we decided to privilege mimesis (such as it is) rather than untrammeled fantasy? Why in fiction, where virtue lies in untruth, or maybe unfact? Why isn't the diagram above true to our predominant literary view?
(cross-posted at atlas(t).)