I don’t really believe in the genres of ‘Literary Fiction’ and ‘Genre Fiction’. By many accounts, the term literary applies more to quality than subject, and everything can be a genre. But it is hard to deny that there is an implicit understanding in what these terms can mean. Many of these opinions can come off as elitist and offensive at times (part of why these genres shouldn’t exist), but we’d be ignoring some realities if we didn’t acknowledge our observations.
As far as saving the world is concerned, I think ‘Literary Fiction’ gets it right. That is to say, that it doesn’t bother with it at all.
Here’s what I mean. You are reading a fantasy novel with great characters and an original setting. Your mind is immersed in the intricate world. Everything is going fine and then, ever too expectedly, an ancient deity, dormant for thousands of years, reemerges and means to destroy the world.
I like to pick on vampires sometimes. It’s not that they aren’t cool; the immortal undead are about as compelling a supernatural villain as you could imagine. The problem is the agency these antagonists usually provide. As interesting as these bloodsuckers can be, if their motivations are as banal as wanting to enslave all of mankind, then they have just had all of the life sucked out of them.
Here’s the thing: stories can have meaningful conflict without the world being about to blow up. A literary novel might focus solely on a boy trying to recover his lost bicycle. Small victories, then, can be just as impactful as giant explosions. Metaphors and theming might also be inherent in that personal quest, of course, but these devices are not precluded from fantasy and sci-fi.
In a story, the stakes can be high without literally being the worst thing ever.
Stop Saving The World
Great fantasy novels don’t need to be so Tolkienesque in their treatment of the great evil. George R. R. Martin proved that you don’t need the apocalypse to be epic. In fact, I would contend that the reason A Song of Ice and Fire has resonated with audiences so much and works as a tv show is because he deals with conflicts of all shapes and sizes, many of them relatable. And sure, his series is threatening a zombie invasion, but five books in out of seven, how much of the emphasis has been placed there?
You can be a hero without saving the world. The threat against a town or family can loom larger and more immediate. A personal struggle can ring louder and ultimately be more fulfilling. I’m certainly not saying that all of humanity can’t have a brush with death every once in a while, but once you do that, you have little place left to go. Try to dig deeper and extract more meaning from smaller struggles. That’s where you’ll find the best in books, anyway.
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