It’s usually best to resist arguments based on polarisations: cycle helmets will save your life vs. they don’t make any difference. Kirk vs. Picard. Literary vs. Genre. And where the latter’s concerned, I believe the perceived differences actually revolve around a common factor, which for now I’ll call the Third Element.
The first two elements are the Writer and the Story. But for any kind of story to really work, there has to be an extra element of wonder. Of course, in traditional story-telling, fantasy often provided this Third Element – ghosts, witches, fairies – all serving to amplify the moral dilemmas life puts in our way.
But, as there was a move away from folklore and fantasy with the industrial revolution, perhaps there was also a similar movement towards ‘realism’ in written fiction. The growing polarisation of Religion vs. Science no doubt added to this split in story-telling approaches.
So, it could be said that literary fiction on the one hand was liberated from the old superstitions and beliefs but on the other perhaps threw out the fairy with the maistir (stale urine). What’s perhaps ironic is that the antipathy felt by some literary writers to genre seems to focus especially on science fiction, as if the term is really an oxymoron of betrayal. But does this anger amount to a kind of subconscious totem envy?
The more polarised literary fiction author, then, perhaps has to first rediscover the need for magic – of a ‘something else’ – in his story, other than just reflecting the day-to-day – and then work hard to produce it out of the mundane. As for the genre writer, his Third Element is already made for him, of course. But he has to resist just throwing a few words at it and letting the totem of say space opera or steampunk or the magical quest do all the work, instead to use the Third Element lightly – either by sliding his focus closer to the literary form or by blowing full-scale with it, yet anchoring it firmly in believable and sympathetic characters.
And here’s the thing: I suspect if you look closely enough at the best literary fiction, you’ll conclude that the writer has quietly slid up that totem at least far enough to touch the need for wonder and myth and connection that all but the most intellectual reader longs for. In which case it’s a shame when some such literary writers are prone to protest that they don’t write science fiction: their stories just happen to be set in the future. As if they’re heading in a completely different direction to the genre writer.
In fact, I think all good writers stand close to the line between literary and genre, left foot one side, right foot the other, or vice versa. In short, any writer in love with a story starts out with excitement in his heart because he’s on the trail of something special, even though he may not know what it is. Unfortunately, very soon, all sorts of genre- or anti-genre-based voices will try to stop him reaching the full expression of it.
As said, I think one of the keys to not getting genre-bound is to avoid polarisations: modern society makes us stupid vs. modern society makes us smart; we’re affected by a collective consciousness of folk culture vs. we’re not, and so on.
In other words, I think that truly creative people, working in any genre, are participators in a Third Element which makes use of the dual ‘options’ of real vs. the fantastical but is not determined by them. We’re different but the same.