2015 Was the Year the Literary Versus Genre War Ended
Here are 11 great books that showed how the decades-old "literary or genre" question is now history.
The first big literary dust-up of 2015 occurred when Kazuo Ishiguro expressed worry that some of his fans would be put off by his new novel: "Will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?" This seeming slight against genre fiction by an acclaimed literary author was taken as another campaign in the decades-long genre wars. Partisans on both sides took up arms in interviews and essays, with no less than Ursula K. Le Guin arguing the book was clearly fantasy and that Ishiguro's snobbery had made it a failure: "It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, 'Are they going say I'm a tight-rope walker?'"
But what soon became apparent is that the debate was less a grand debate about genre and literary fiction than a small debate over semantics. Was The Buried Giant in the same genre as 20th-century fantasy classics like Lord of the Rings, or was it better categorized as a modern take on medieval Romances and Arthurian legends? And does it even matter? Pretty soon Ishiguro, whose previous book was a sci-fi novel about clones and considers Westerns and samurai films to be major influences, clarified that he was "on the side of the pixies and the dragons."
The whole thing was quickly forgotten, as well it should have been because it's time for us to declare an end to the genre wars. We are in an age when superhero and Harry Potter films dominate audiences and highbrow magazines cover Game of Thrones and Sherlock while literary writers employ zombies and apocalypses in their novels. The artificial boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction have never been thinner. Last year many of the most acclaimed and bestselling books where from so-called genre authors publishing on literary presses, such as Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy on FSG, and so-called literary authors publishing genre-infused books, such as Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. This peace is seen not only in sales, but in the increasing way books contend for both genre and literary awards. Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award. David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks was long-listed for the Man Booker, and won the 2015 World Fantasy Award. At last year's National Book Awards, the lifetime achievement was given to Ursula K. Le Guin with an introduction from Neil Gaiman.
So let's say goodbye to the genre wars with a look at 11 great books from 2015 that showed how much those walls have collapsed.
'The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy,' edited by John Joseph Adams and Joe Hill
The Best American Short Stories anthology has been running for 100 years, and in the last century the Best American series has expanded to Essays, Comics, Travel Writing, and more. But 2015 was the first time the series has been expanded to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sure, one could argue that if the genre walls were completely finished, there would be no need for a separate anthology. Still, a look at the table of contents shows a mix of genre and literary stalwarts, from Neil Gaiman and Jo Walton to Karen Russell and T. C. Boyle. The stories are also drawn from publications in both worlds, with stories first appearing in the New Yorker and McSweeney's alongside those from Tor.com and Asimov's Science Fiction.
'The Buried Giant,' by Kazuo Ishiguro
Controversy aside, Ishiguro's novel was an impressive melding of fantasy and philosophy, weaving an Arthurian quest with deep musings on memory, loss, and war. The New York Times called The Buried Giant "the weirdest, riskiest and most ambitious thing he's published in his celebrated 33-year career." Luckily for readers, he pulled it off.
'Get in Trouble,' by Kelly Link
Link has been smashing down genre walls for decades with her brilliant story collections that mix fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and YA with beautiful sentences and unforgettable characters. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, was published in hardcover this year and quickly became one of the most talked about collections in both the genre and literary worlds.
'A Planet for Rent,' by Yoss
This hilarious and imaginative novel by Cuba's premiere science-fiction writer gets my vote for most overlooked novel of the year. Yoss's book imagines a world where Earth is run as a tourist destination by capitalist aliens who have little regard for the planet or its inhabitants. A Planet for Rent is a perfect SF satire for our era of massive inequality and seemingly unchecked environmental destruction.
'The Fifth Season,' by N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin's works have long been acclaimed in the SF/F communities, and it's high time she broke out with literary audiences. The Fifth Season, the first book of her new series about oppressed sorcerers that is partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, might just do that. It received great reviews in literary outlets and has been deservedly making many year-end lists, including the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2015 . Jemisin was also hired this year to write Otherworldly, the new science fiction and fantasy column in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
'Haints Stay,' by Colin Winnette
In my review of Winnette's surreal Western I wrote, "Great genre fiction takes its tropes and twists them into new shapes. In that way, Haints Stay recalls another novel of murdering brothers: Patrick deWitt's fantastic 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers . But where deWitt's novel puts an existential spin on the Western, Winnette's ventures into myth and unreality. This is a land where you must bury the teeth of your enemies or be haunted by their ghosts. If you aren't careful, you may wake to find a cannibal eating your limb."
'Undermajordomo Minor,' by Patrick deWitt
Speaking of deWitt, his latest hilariously inventive novel is another spin on a classic genre. But instead of Westerns as in his last novel, The Sisters Brothers, he takes on fables and fairy tales. Lucien (A.K.A. Lucy) Minor leaves his small village for a life of (mis)adventure as the assistant to the Majordomo at the dark Castle Von Aux. Fans of fairy tales and black comedy should be sure to put Undermajordomo Minor on their list.
'You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,' by Alexandra Kleeman
One of the most highly praised debuts this year, Kleeman's novel is a hilarious yet philosophical satire on our weird obsessions about food and bodies. It exists alongside the works of George Saunders in that nebulous overlap zone of satire, near-future SF, and postmodernism. No matter what label you put on it, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine was one of 2015's great reads.
'The Heart Goes Last,' by Margaret Atwood
Atwood has been doing the literary/genre crossover thing since long before it was cool. Her works of speculative fiction—the label she prefers—are frequently piercing satires of our society through the lens of near-future or alternative realities. Her latest, The Heart Goes Last, is yet another entry, crafting a dystopia of economic collapse and control that is too close to present realities for comfort.
'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley Robinson
Several of the books on this list offer grim dystopian visions of our present and future, but Kim Stanley Robinson's latest epic, Aurora, is a nice antidote to the pessimism. Called "a rousing tribute to the human spirit" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Aurora envisions humanity's first trip to another solar system.
'Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe,' by Thomas Ligotti
Ligotti has long been a cult horror writer with a small but dedicated following. However, his nihilistic cosmic horror (think Lovecraft with less adventure and monsters and more existential dread) broke into the public consciousness when the first season of True Detective used his writings as the basis for much of Rust Cohle's dialogue. This year, Ligotti became one of only a handful of living authors to have a Penguin Classics edition of his work when they reprinted his first two books as a single volume.
Lincoln Michel is the co-editor of Gigantic and the online editor of Electric Literature. His debut collection Upright Beasts was published this October by Coffee House Press. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and on Twitter.
- Margaret Atwood
- Science Fiction
- Lincoln Michel
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Alexandra Kleeman
- Patrick DeWitt
- Undermajordomo Minor
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
- A Planet for Rent
- The Buried Giant
- Thomas Ligotti
- Songs of a Dead Dreamer
- Kim Stalney Robinson
- The Heart Goes Last
- Haints Stay
- Colin Winnette
- N K Jemisin
- The Fifth Season
- Kelly Link
- Get in Trouble
- Best American Short Stories