The Unspoken Hierarchy in Literature

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.

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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.

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Book Cover: Life of Pi

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”.[1]

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?

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Film Poster: Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Credit: Barkerhost

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.

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Homer’s The Odyssey. Credit: Huffington Post


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.

About Scheherazade

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.

Works Cited

[1] Wisker, Gina. “Postcolonial Gothic.” In Teaching the Gothic, edited by Anna Powell and Andrew Smith. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 168-181.

3 responses to “The Unspoken Hierarchy in Literature

  1. Thanks for that, Scheherazade, got me thinking a bit and it’s been a while now since my days as a student.

    I wonder though, is the issue here one of hierarchical attitudes towards certain genres or modes of representation, or in fact rather one of perceived dismissive views towards certain works from certain genres? These seem to be connected but different issues.

    I want to play devil’s advocate in a few instances but I do have some issues with your argument, a few of which seem to come back to the concept of ‘realism’. ‘Realism’ strikes me as being a term whose use here is difficult, if not entirely contentious. The claim that “[i]n 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” is somewhat confusing in terms of its examples (and, perhaps more importantly, not clearly evidenced?). Did the Modernists or the Romantics strive for a ‘realist’ aesthetic…? Is ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ not rather ‘fantastic’…? Is the unspoken accusation here not that the ever-increasing list of scholars in question are dismissive of a genre (although some might indeed be) but, rather, that they do not hold in academic regard particular examples of fantasy or speculative fiction…?

    You ask why the speculative as a genre has not, despite considerable success in popular culture, gained “credit as literature of academic prestige”, and bring in some examples, the choice of which seems interesting. To take two of these, ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Game of Thrones’: do you not think there is even the smallest degree of validity to a claim that suggests that these works are not, in an academic literary sense, particularly good? Entertaining and ambitious in scope, certainly, no one could really fairly seek to deny them that, but what is their academic merit exactly? Certainly, it’s a rare occasion on which I meet anyone, from any background, who’s read ‘Game of Thrones’ and thinks it is well-written. Equally, there are hugely popular works of fiction that are similarly not accorded particular academic recognition: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was quite the cultural phenomenon but seems to be largely dismissed by scholars; occasionally so, anecdotally, by the same scholars who push for ‘Harry Potter’ to feature on more syllabuses.

    Rather than repeat the question as to whether it is a general or a specific exclusion from the perceived hierarchy that is being contended I would, instead, consider, using the varying definitions of the ‘speculative genre’ given in the article, the form or the extent to which such a hierarchy in those terms exists. As is rightly noted in the article, the importance of ‘fantasy’ has roots in Homer. Okay, lots of literature courses also start with Homer. If we then move through some version of the current standard canon, this presence doesn’t particularly seem to disappear. ‘Sir Gawain’ was mentioned above; how about, a little later, ‘The Faerie Queene’? It’s all but impossible, studying English, to avoid ‘Paradise Lost’ – is it ‘realist’? What about spiritual autobiographies, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Doctor Faustus’, or, later again, ‘Frankenstein’? Fair enough, there was a period dominated by schools of Naturalism and Realism, but courses in 20th Century literature seem generally to include a fair amount of ‘non-realist’ or speculative writing. The dystopian fictions of Huxley and Orwell have long been canonical; Atwood makes frequent appearances, as do Carter, Rushdie and Pynchon; Latin American literature is closely associated with the magical realism; and, if it comes to it, what are we to make, even, of the bleak and bizarre landscapes of Beckett’s works?

    I’m aware that maybe I’m pushing a bit at stricter definitions of ‘speculative fiction’ (insofar as there is a strict definition), but I guess what I’m really wondering is whether you might agree to any degree with the idea that alongside ‘Middlemarch’ there are many very accomplished works of fantasy/speculative/non-realist fiction that are studied and that are acclaimed within an academic context? Or that sometimes a writer is seen (although of course it should never be simply assumed) as being not exceptionally good at writing not because of their chosen genre but because, technically or stylistically or conceptually, they just aren’t all that? That’s not to say that I don’t have some issues with the canon, and, obviously, value judgements are inherently tricky things but, after years of studying literature at university might we not consider it in some ways quite possible to draw reasonably qualified distinctions in quality between, say, ‘1984’ and ‘The Hunger Games’, or between the work of Alice Munro and J. K. Rowling? Certainly, I feel there’s a fairly strong case to be made for acknowledging that in some cases liking, or having liked something, does not necessarily entail it has academic worth even if you are an academic. Equally, you could recognise the academic value of something and yet not like it. Perhaps Dr X enjoys a Tom Clancy on a weekend, or maybe Dr Y loved ‘The Faraway Tree’ series when they were a kid, but how seriously would you take them if they proposed that you should write a dissertation on those?

    Sorry for rambling, I’ll be quiet now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Clarissa,

      Thanks so much for this response! It was lovely reading it. There’s so many interesting questions here to get into. I’m actually going to start from one of your last questions: “the idea that alongside ‘Middlemarch’ there are many very accomplished works of fantasy/speculative/non-realist fiction that are studied and that are acclaimed within an academic context?”
      Absolutely, I do think that there are some academically accomplished speculative fiction works out there. However, they are limited and in some cases, it is only more recently that they have been considered accomplished. I was reminded by a comment I made to a friend recently when you mentioned Angela Carter earlier. While she would be considered a staple of British literature now, in academic classrooms she is mostly taught as a postmodernist. That is not to say that her more supernatural elements are not discussed, but they are not made the focus. Though it may be subtle difference, it does make a difference.

      You yourself ask, “Perhaps Dr X enjoys a Tom Clancy on a weekend, or maybe Dr Y loved ‘The Faraway Tree’ series when they were a kid, but how seriously would you take them if they proposed that you should write a dissertation on those?” The answer should be that it is not a question they should be asking themselves. They should not wonder if it makes them “serious” (a judgment made more others) to study what interests them, especially if they think there is merit in what they study. I am not saying that all works of fiction need to be taught in a classroom but when there is an attitude of disapproval towards the speculative it creates a vicious circle that less people want to discuss it or write it, which results in less well written works.

      On that note, there are plenty excellently written speculative works that are almost never mentioned in academic classrooms. While you mention Huxley and Orwell, their work is still firmly rooted in the real, projecting an idea of the future based on what they see now. On the other hand, authors like Philip K. Dick who actively challenge conceptions of what is considered real, are very rarely considered as classroom worthy. Similarly, the prose of Ursula La Guin is incredibly written. Additionally, she uses elements of the supernatural or alien to challenge gender conventions. Yet, she is rarely seen on the academic scene. It cannot be possible that no speculative work is well written, so there must be another reason why they are not considered literary.

      In relation to the magical realist, the genre has historically been so closely associated to Latin America that it is almost always read as postcolonial work. Rushdie’s work because it deals so closely with Indian culture is similarly treated thus. The culture absolutely plays a large role in the works, however, the works are not treated as speculative fiction. Again, the way that it is demarcated does matter. Why is it that only postcolonial fiction should be using magical realism to discuss issues of race, gender, sexuality and other oppressions. We should consider that maybe the inclusion of the supernatural allows for opportunities to transgress binaries and hierarchies and hence that is the important feature to discuss.

      Lastly, you mention Beckett, ‘Sir Gawain’, ‘The Faerie Queene’, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Doctor Faustus’, and ‘Frankenstein’. My focus on this article was contemporary literature, but you are absolutely right! We have examples of the supernatural being an integral part of literature. And as you say, lots of courses start with Homer. To some extent then the supernatural, fairytales, myths, etc are recognised as being important to literature. But it seems that it has given way to a stubbornness for realism to be considered the future of literature, which in my opinion would be a great shame. Talking about why there is a bias against fantasy and making more of an effort to include it in academic circles can hopefully reverse this.

      Hope I haven’t gone on for too long!


  2. Oh no worries about the length, that’s often a good thing, and thanks for your reply! Besides, I suspect I may be just as wordy….

    I have to say, my taught encounters with Angela Carter’s writing have often tended to focus around the issue of magical realism…. Postmodernism and feminism, obviously follow not far behind. That personal aside aside, though, I have to confess I’m not entirely sure about the ‘subtle difference’ you mention. If in a discussion of, say, ‘Nights at the Circus’, the various supernatural elements of the novel are noted and discussed in the course of a seminar or a lecture, then why should they, further to that, be made the focus? I’m not saying that because I don’t think they are important, because they obviously do play a key role in Carter’s writing, but making a particular aspect of her aesthetic the primary focus sounds limiting to me. Sure, to ground an approach to an author upon one particular element would be fine for independent research but to teach that way would veer towards the teaching simply tropes rather than aiming for general understanding of a writer’s work as a whole.

    Beyond possibly the number of texts included in contemporary literature courses, could I perhaps push for an example of what you mean by this “attitude of disapproval towards the speculative”? I’ve just been having a general read of this website (and I am aware that although there are quite a number of contributors it can’t be taken as truly representative sample of Humanities scholarship as a whole) and the impression that I got was that both fantasy and the speculative as genres seems to have a large, almost disproportionate, presence. In fact, if anything, the number of articles relating to Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Modernist, etc., literature were relatively few and far between. A dismissive attitude toward anything? Yes, sure: works that don’t deal with particular key issues of, say, sexuality or politics from a certain point of view, or that are written by the notorious ‘Old White Men’, it seems. Lord knows, I have my issues with certain OWM (I mentioned spiritual autobiographies but I’m a long way from a fan) but I can’t ignore certain historical contingencies and the fact that there’s a lot of writing that is exceptional. There’s also a lot of writing that is not so great, and perhaps not so influential either, and maybe this should not be on reading lists, but it can’t all simply be disparaged without good reasoning. And this brings me back to the similar point you made about how it can’t be that ALL speculative fiction is poorly written.

    Not all speculative fiction is badly written, I entirely agree! Past or contemporary, there are plenty of examples of well-crafted, intelligent, speculative and fantasy (or not strictly ‘realist’) fiction. I’m sure there is probably room for development in Literature syllabuses so that more examples of this genre are included (although I notice the undergraduate course over at Edinburgh seems to have small chunk of its core module devoted to Victorian fantasy), but surely we have to acknowledge, whatever our feelings towards the genre, that at the level of taught courses there are practical issues. If you’ve a synoptic course that has 10-12 weeks to cover maybe 100-200 years, there’s simply no way, I feel, to devoting more than one week to a particular genre/aesthetic/movement. I have no idea about optional courses across the board at universities but, in the experience that I do have, there are generally numerous enough opportunities to study pointedly non-realist, contemporary, transgressive texts if that is where your interests lie. At research level, well, I’ve known people work on Philip K. Dick, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the like with no problems.

    I’m not sure that I entirely buy that the magical realism associated with the Latin American Boom is strictly postcolonial, per se. Given that the majority of South American countries gained their independence from colonial powers only about 50 years after the US did, I feel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ probably has as much claim to being a piece of pointedly postcolonial writing as ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ does, and has much to do with the tumultuous politics of the mid-twentieth century. Slightly off topic though, perhaps. However, like you say, it certainly shouldn’t be perceived that magical realism belongs solely to the postcolonial writer; I’m not yet convinced that is how it’s positioned, though. Certainly, of those that we’ve mentioned that are most taught, Morrison, Rushdie and Carter, only one of them tends to be given that label. From a slightly more Comparative Literature perspective, too, in addition to the likes of Garcia Marquez and Juan Rulfo, there’s Gunter Grass, Kobo Abe, and Mikhail Bulgakov (to name a few), none of whom are postcolonial writers but all of whom incorporate surreal/supernatural aspects to critique society or politics or history. That the inclusion of such things provides the means to, as you point out, transgress certain boundaries within the text is not is not something that I feel most people in academia deny or would not discuss.

    What I think is more often the case, and this is only what suggested itself to me looking at the examples given in the original article and others on this site, is that there might be a perceived lack of academic regard for certain types or examples of fantasy or speculative writing. I agree there numerous very decent works of speculative fiction or fantasy that don’t always appear frequently on core courses, but whether this is necessarily the result of a negative attitude towards them is a moot point. What does seem to be the case, however, is that people often appear aggrieved by the fact that something like the ‘Harry Potter’ series is not given academic standing. Now, I actually agree with you when you say that people shouldn’t particularly worry about what other people think so long as they are enjoying what they are studying. But, equally, no one can expect to simply study and argue anything and automatically, without question, have their work proclaimed as having academic merit. That way lies madness. The whole point of academia, and one that students should go into their studies cognisant of, is surely to develop increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking within a field; to do so obviously requires that you can convince others that what you are claiming is valid, and is valuable. If you can do so then great; if you can’t then I think, pleasant or not, you really do have to consider why not and allow that it may not always be blind prejudice. Most of the authors you mention in your reply, I feel, like you, write well and engage well with particular issues and questions but, and I’m happy to be called out as an academic snob or whatever on this, I think that as with any genre there are examples of fantasy and speculative fiction that, no matter how popular they are, simply offer very little to academic discussion beyond the superficial. To be quite honest, if anyone can go through years of studying and being made aware of the enormous wealth of literature that currently exists and still feel that ‘Harry Potter’ is what most needs to focused on, whilst dismissing out-of-hand, say, ‘The Naked and the Dead’ because Norman Mailer was a man who had troubled relationships, then I’d almost be tempted to question what they were really expecting from studying the subject.

    (Over-long – told you!)


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