Grounds for Hope: Science Fiction as Literature

At yesterday’s National Book Awards, celebrated science fiction author Ursula Le Guin received an award honoring her literary achievements. Once small step for the legendary Le Guin, one giant leap for science fiction authors. Two key points in her speech resonated deeply with me both as a writer and a devotee of science fiction: the undervaluation of science fiction books, and the trouble with literary art as commodity.

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists. I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now…and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

I attended a university renowned for its creative writing program; it was the reason I chose the school. Yet all but one creative writing workshop I attended expressly forbade science fiction and fantasy submissions, right in the syllabus. The outrage! How could professors—supposedly employed to open my mind and expand my horizons—enforce such prejudice against an entire genre? Who made them the gatekeepers, the judges, the mercurial ruling gods of fiction?

I scraped together “realistic” short stories for class and always felt dissatisfied with the result, like my writing voice wore a banal disguise. Science fiction writing because my illicit addiction: literary porn, a shameful habit to be indulged in private. It took years for me to overcome this complex and reclaim my true authorial calling. Ms. Le Guin’s astute observation that the literary community has long turned up its collective noses at imaginative fiction seemed to validate years of frustration made me feel like I belonged to an underground rebel movement. One that had finally won a small victory against the establishment.

Proper Lit

“Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…. Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art.”

If I had a dollar for each time I’ve thought “jeez, I should just write some schlocky vampire romance novel under a pen name and make a fortune exploiting popular trends,” I’d be rich enough to quit my day job. What stopped me? Nagging creative integrity. Sure, it’s always been my dream to make a living with fiction. But it’s about more than money. It’s about expressing ideas through language, character, and story. It’s sharing a vision and seeding thoughts that may inspire change, even if only in a single reader’s mind.

Ms. Le Guin’s accomplishments and her perspective on the craft of science fiction writing give me courage to pursue the stories I’ve always been compelled to write, regardless of institutional approval or commercial conformity. Her receipt of the award provides the “grounds of hope” of which she speaks: hope that imaginative fiction is finally claiming the status it deserves.

Read the full transcript of Ms. Le Guin’s speech here.

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3 thoughts on “Grounds for Hope: Science Fiction as Literature

  1. Andrew R. Cameron says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this – both of those quotes resonated with me as well. I also undertook Creative Writing at a university where I was largely expected to write “realistic” fiction, and nothing could be more frustrating or disheartening. (On a positive note, I now teach a Genre Fiction class at that same uni.) Ursula Le Guin is so inspiring!

    Like

    • jilliankullrich says:

      Funny how college creative writing classes seem to have a universally narrow definition of “creative”. I’m glad you preserved your interest in genre fiction and now get to share it with other students of the craft. Keep storming that ivory tower!

      Like

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