On the realism v. fantasy/spec divide

It’s time to end this nonsense push-pull between so-called realism and so-called speculative fiction. I feel like the various generations who came after me and the other X-ers will figure it out. Literature is literature. Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, among many others, have known this for years. Stop being a snob (on both sides). Also, I’ve never seen so many illustrative charts in one article before.

Stop making Ryan sad by forcing him to choose between his humanity and the fact that he’s a well-designed tool.

Imagine a football field of fiction. The left endzone perfectly imitates reality. The right endzone fully invents a new one. Art, being imperfect, can never reach either goal. But perhaps the left five-yard line is dotted with the dirty realism of Raymond Carver or researched historical fiction like Wolf Hall while the other five-yard line has the fantastic imaginings of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Everything to the left of the 50-yard line is “realism” and everything to the right of it is “science fiction and fantasy.”

This is how many readers, authors, and even critics view the terrain of literature. (And, yes, sadly many view it as a competition where we must choose a side.) Literary discourse often devolves into squabbling over the failed “realism” of stylized novels like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or debates about whether magical realism is just fantasy for literary snobs.

Last year, an award-winning SFF author told me that non-realist literary authors like Karen Russell and Donald Barthelme were “actually science fiction and fantasy writers” while also mocking non-realist literary authors for “not even thinking through their worldbuilding.” The result is a big confused mess that leaves whole swaths of literature—fabulism, surrealism, hysterical realism, postmodernism, and so on—floating in the ether.

Realism is not a binary. It is at a minimum a spectrum. If you charted fictional realities on a football field, you’d find that work on the 45-yard “Realism” side is closer to the 45-yard “SFF” marker than it is to, say, Sally Rooney over the 8-yard line. But even a spectrum doesn’t accurately capture the vast ocean of fiction that takes our reality and heightens, stylizes, distorts, or warps it in different ways.

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