Scheherazade Khan | 10th July 2017.
The humanities in higher education are often looked down upon as a wasted pursuit. In the presence of doctors, engineers, scientists, policy makers and accountants, the humanities can be considered rather pointless. Most students in the arts are well accustomed to jokes regarding poor employment opportunities in our fields. Though these comments may hint at the difficult reality of job searching for those in the arts, generally humanities students have learnt to laugh along. We understand and have accepted that we did not choose this field for its financial potential but for a passion we felt determined to follow and explore.
However, despite being on the receiving end of assumptions of the applicability and significance of our chosen passions, in the field of literature a similar hierarchy occurs regarding what constitutes a ‘serious’ pursuit of literary knowledge: a hierarchy of genres.
In an ever-increasing list of scholars studying the Modernists, Romantics, or Medieval Literature the realm of Speculative fiction (literature that is set in fictional other worlds and includes aspects of the supernatural, futuristic or otherwise unreal elements) is considered childish, something to grow out of in preference for realism. In the history of The Man Booker Prize, a literary award presented for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK, there has only been three novels that fall outside of the category of realism, two of which fall under the hybrid form of magical realism: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in 1991, and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi in 2002.
Though only one literary award of many, it is an indication of the infrequency of non-realism genres to find a place on the list of influential and supposedly academically worthy literature. Maybe this is because the creation of a new world or the presence of something supernatural seems like an escape from the “real world”. Perhaps the invention of new realities appears un-relatable and/or wholly dramatised. Or it may also be because of the unfair assumption that speculative writers are not as good at writing compared to realist authors. Whatever the reason, as Gina Wisker puts it, fantasy, the gothic, science fiction and other non-realistic forms of literature are treated as “second class, literary citizens”.
Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are just a few examples of Fantasy literature that have had a significant impact in the world of film and television. However, it is a relatively recent development and one that is majorly due to a younger generation of readers and viewers. The flood of Fantasy and Science Fiction films and TV shows in recent years and their subsequent success places the speculative in the realm of pop culture. However, it still does not gain credit as literature of academic prestige. Why is this?
Wisker makes the bold suggestion that “[m]isunderstanding, silencing, downgrading and denying this poetic, metaphoric form of expression is every bit as much an oppressive critical constraint as is refusing alternative versions of history.” She implies that speculative fiction enables the articulation of realities that may have been silenced or suppressed in favour of a dominant voice. In other words, Wisker suggests that forms of realism have been prioritised as being the “correct” way to represent reality and identity. However, this reading assumes that there is only one reality.
The lack of fantasy or science fiction novels in academic syllabi suggests a passive disapproval of its method. This, in turn, generates a stigma amongst the young academics who want to study speculative fiction and who want to be taken seriously.
The importance of fantasy or science fiction should not be ignored. The roots of this genre can be traced back to mythology, folklore, and the Greek classics, such as Homer’s Odyssey, and so should be considered integral to literature.
Moreover, the interjection of the supernatural or futuristic can offer an insight into the complexity of realities that are rarely represented. This includes postcolonial, queer or intersectional identities (identities that are defined by compounded oppressions occurring simultaneously). Postcolonial authors have already demonstrated a leaning towards the speculative to voice their particularly unique realities. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, uses ghosts to describe the indescribable experience of individual and generational trauma due to slavery.
Genres which differ from the dominant canon of literature can help to expand forms of expression and individualise the notion of experience. Globalisation calls for increased tolerance and progressiveness. Including more fantasy and science fiction within the academic classroom may encourage a diversification of canonical literature, and remove the unspoken hierarchy in literature that is complicit in prioritising some experiences and their expressions of others.
An alumna from the University of Toronto with a BA (Hons) in English, History and Fine Arts, and undertaking a MSc in Gender and Culture, my interests lie in uncovering the complexities of identity politics in postcolonial fiction. Novels that allow me to dislike the protagonist(s) are my preferred choices.
Article edited by Dylan Taylor.
 Wisker, Gina. “Postcolonial Gothic.” In Teaching the Gothic, edited by Anna Powell and Andrew Smith. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 168-181.