Can starships and elves be great literature too?
In 2017, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to The Underground Railroad, a tale of slavery in pre-civil war America. This is probably not a particularly riveting fact; nor is the news that the 2016 prize was won by the The Sympathiser, a story about a Vietnamese immigrant in America. You might even feel a pleasant sense of déjà vu if you were a literature fan in 2004 or 1986, when the prize went to tales of slavery in pre-civil war America, or in 1993, when the prize went to a story of Vietnamese immigration to the US. If you’re a fan of middle-aged New York businessmen, you’ll also feel well catered for, although fans of World War 2 and British colonialism in India would probably prefer the winners of the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer’s strongest rival for the most prestigious award of English-language literature.
But if your preferences are more along the lines of Lord of the Rings or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’re out of luck – because no fantasy or science fiction book has ever won either award.
Now, I should make clear from the start that there’s no reason why books about slavery or immigration shouldn’t win major literary awards; these are interesting and emotionally powerful stories that deserve to be written and read. The problem arises only when other stories are blacklisted entirely because they belong to ‘genre’ fiction. The theory goes something like this: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and detective novels are all trashy but fun literature, the written equivalent of Gossip Girl, while only tragic stories about World War 2 or colonialism are worth awards and analysis.
If your last memories of studying English were at GCSE, you’ll probably be familiar with this literary snobbery; after all, Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men are books most high-schoolers have been forced to read against their will, and these books are definitely ‘worthy’ literature. But if you’ve read more extensively, you may think I’m talking rubbish. After all, aren’t classics like Brave New World science fiction? Doesn’t the Odyssey have plenty of fantasy creatures? Well, yes, actually. But modern literary critics wouldn’t agree with these classifications. Brave New World is “anti-utopian” according to Wikipedia, and if the Odyssey was published today, it would be no doubt be called “magic realism”, despite the presence of dragons, mermaids, witches and giants. Furthermore, many books that the general public think of as classics are still dismissed by the literary establishment. While discussing Dracula, famed literary critic Harold Bloom sneers at “Stoker’s inferior gifts as a writer”; JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was dismissed by contemporary critics as “pedantry” which lacks in “psychological depth”.
What really highlights this short-sighted elitism is the open-minded approach of other forms of media. When JRR Tolkien’s books were turned into movies, those movies were hailed as masterpieces, with the last film of the trilogy winning 11 Academy Awards – a tied record for the most ever won by a film. Meanwhile, sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and horror films like Psycho are considered amongst the greatest films ever made. Particularly striking is when an author who is overlooked by the literary elite has enormous success within the world of TV and film. Stephen King has never won a Nobel Prize, or a Pulitzer, or a Booker; he probably never will. But films based on his stories, like The Shining, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption, are beloved by audiences and professional reviewers alike. Perhaps the most striking example today is the Game of Thrones series, based on books by George RR Martin. A particularly vicious critic from the Guardian denounced their “archaic absurdity” and said of the book series “It’s daft. It’s unsophisticated. It’s cartoonish”, while admitting that he couldn’t stop reading. Lev Grossman, another critic (and best-selling novelist in his own right), instead declared that Martin’s skill “exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today”, while acknowledging that Martin would “never win a Pulitzer or a National Book Award”.
So why are some literary circles so opposed to fiction from “genres”? Well, my lecturers assure me that it’s because “real” literature focuses mainly on strong characterisation and being innovative, while “popular” fiction is built around clichés. But how innovative can you be when you’re writing the 300th book that year about an orphaned boy and his dog during World War 2, or about an insurance salesman from Ohio cheating on his wife? And how could books like Lord of the Rings or Dracula, which completely reformed or created entire genres of literature, not be innovative? Perhaps you could understand this attitude if we were discussing Twilight (which, it has to be said, is a very addictive book which probably shouldn’t win many prizes), but I think most of us can agree that there are very substantial differences between Twilight and Dracula.
You’ve probably guessed my answer to this article’s title by now, but for clarity’s sake: yes. Elves can be great literature. So can starships. I’m actually not JRR Tolkien’s biggest fan, but his books should still be respected for their influence and originality. And if his books replace Lord of the Flies in high-school English classrooms, I’ll try my best not to shed any tears.