• Niall Gallen

Genre Speciation and Science Fiction: Realer than Realism?

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

In this post, PhD Candidate Niall Gallen uses J.G. Ballard’s 1971 essay ‘Fictions of Every Kind’ to scrutinise the status of 20th Century responses to Literary Realism in times of Genre Speciation.

In the above tweet, Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) provides a compelling, even if slightly hasty, criticism of approaches to 20th century literature. It is typical to think of the 20th century as being broadly divisible into two periods: Modernist writing, and a Post-Modernist response. Ted argues that, if a more holistic approach to literature is taken, ‘genre speciation is a more plausible through-line’. I largely agree with Ted’s view; the branching developments of genre appear to be a decisive shift spurred on by the rise of pulp and magazine culture in the early part of the 20th century. I also see it as a healthy prognosis for how to best approach the century as a period—if the time ever comes. However, there is one problem with Ted’s claim from the angle of literary analysis. Where does this leave the relation of Modernism and Post-Modernism to the history of Literary Realism?

Literary Realism is typically defined as a genre originating in the 19th century and is concerned with representing the realities of its protagonists in ways that recognisably parallel the everyday lived experience of its readers. One way of understanding the significance of the Modernist and Post-Modernist moments is as continued responses to Literary Realism. The Modernist adherence to subjectivism, for instance, is often regarded as more realist than the Realism of the 19th century. In opposition to their Realist counterparts, the Modernists illustrated the many unconscious sensory perceptions and mental processes used when engaging with the world. Likewise, the Post-Modernists challenged the values held by many Modernists, particularly the distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” understandings of culture. As a result of this, the Post-Modernists were often believed to parallel the ironic juxtapositions of everyday lived experience more closely than the Modernists ever could. When read through this lens of responses to Literary Realism, Ted’s focus on ‘genre speciation’ raises an important question: do the diverse genres of romance, horror and fantasy all individually represent something closer to the realities of everyday experience in the early 20th century, or is such a claim merely a view that already aligns with Post-Modernist retrospections?

A lot could be said in response to this question. However, the problem it presents can be simplified. If, as Ted Claims, 20th century literary culture was not organised by Modernism and Post-Modernism, where does this leave the Realist thread? Ted touches on this question in a roundabout way. The tail of his tweet refers to the example of ‘the slow rise of speculative fiction’. Perhaps this is the new response to Realism Ted identifies? Yet, Ted leaves this statement ambiguous, even in the tweets that follow. No further illustration is given to what works constitute this ‘slow rise’. Furthermore, it is unclear if speculative fiction is outpaced by more meaningful developments, like the mass proliferation of Romance—surely another, more dominant, form of genre speciation? It is also questionable whether ‘speculative fiction’ identifies a new response to Realism in any meaningful sense—what is it that speculative fiction says about the present that earlier threads of Post-Modern and Modernist literary cultures did not?

Fortunately, there is a point of comparison to Ted’s claims, and one that offers a chance for rethinking the Realist thread of the 20th century. In 1971 the author J.G. Ballard, a writer of works that are often debatably labelled science fiction, addressed the Realist thread of the 20th century in his essay ‘Fictions of Every Kind’. In this essay, Ballard makes the polemical claim that ‘everything is becoming science fiction.’ The essay offers a tantalising line of thought: science fiction represents the 20th century’s response to Realism far better than anything else.

To reinforce his claim, Ballard suggests that science-fiction dwarfs ‘the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the so-called Modern Movement, a nineteenth century offshoot of bourgeois rejection.’ Moreover, he also suggests that science fiction far outclasses the narrative fiction of his contemporaries. He claims that ‘the social novel is reaching fewer and fewer readers, for the clear reason that social relationships are no longer as important as the individual’s relationship with the technological landscape of the late twentieth century.’ For Ballard, if there is one certainty of 20th century life, it is the vast expansion of this so-called ‘technological landscape’ into every facet of social reality. It just so happens that this is also the environment to which science fiction is best suited.

A vigilant reader of ‘Fictions of Every Kind’ will notice that Ballard’s definition of science fiction does not align with typical understandings of the genre. Indeed, his claim that it is an ‘invisible literature’, is questionable—science fiction was a well-established genre by 1971. Furthermore, Ballard attests that ‘the subject matter of SF is the subject matter of everyday life: the gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife’s or husband’s thighs passing the newsreel images on a color TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artifact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator’. Taken in isolation, none of these details seem like features of the genre. However, such comparisons should be taken seriously in-line with what Ballard identifies as the genre’s most prescient quality: ‘a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of a consumer goods society’. For Ballard, science fiction is the genre that best illustrates the role writers must now play in this consumer goods landscape, one in which they are ‘now merely one of a huge army of people filling the environment with fictions of every kind.’ A consequence of this landscape is that writers are now not only competing with other writers but, as Ballard aptly identifies through the following question, the likes of advertising agencies and marketing personnel: ‘What can Saul Bellow and John Updike do that J. Walter Thompson, the world’s largest advertising agency and its greatest producer of fiction, can’t do better?’ For Ballard, science fiction depicts the true qualities of the commercial landscape faced by the writer in the present—the science and technology with which they are also in competition.

Ballard sees the merits of the genre of science fiction not in its capacities to ‘place a new perspective on ‘man, nature, history and ultimate meaning’’, those things that can (and have) been attributed to all forms of fiction by literary critics. Instead, science fiction’s merits lie in its more-realist-than-Realist depictions of science and technology in the present consumer goods society. It’s no wonder then that Ballard claims that ‘science fiction has always been a corporate activity’, and that ‘the yardsticks of individual achievement do not measure the worth of its best writers’. The merits of science fiction lie in its anonymity, which can also be understood as the relative impersonality of both its writers and characters when compared with other genres. Moreover, Ballard identifies the anonymous contributions the genre has made to the fields of commercial design, suggesting that this is far more important than any single written work. Ballard summarises thus, ‘no more ‘great names’ stand out than in the design of consumer durables, or for that matter the Rheims Cathedral.’ Science fiction is indeed an ‘invisible literature’. The extent of its influence over the 20th century is unfathomable, but its impression remains palpable within the technologies and processes that mediate between commercial designer, product, and consumer. The ideas and logics of science fiction can be seen to underpin fields as disparate as writing and the design/marketing of the 1971 Cadillac El Dorado. But the question remains as Ballard originally put it: ‘who designed the 1971 Cadillac El Dorado, a complex of visual, organic and psychological clues of infinitely more subtlety and relevance, stemming from a vastly older network of crafts and traditions than, say, the writings of Norman Mailer or the latest Weidenfeld or Cape miracle?’

To return to Ted Underwood’s tweet, and his refutation of ‘the notion that 20c literary culture was organised by modernism & post-modernism’: I agree, he is right that ‘genre speciation is a more plausible through-line’. However, if Modernism and Post-Modernism are to be understood through the Realist thread of literary history, then it is also necessary to find a new analogue for the conditions of ‘genre speciation’ Ted identifies. Perhaps, as Ballard suggests, science fiction demarcates the true response to 19th century Realism, one that still considers the value of science and technology but wholly through the social dynamics of consumer culture? After all, what is ‘genre speciation’ if not the consequential organization of texts for the convenience of a selection mechanism: consumer demand. The invisible literatures of science fiction are the most adequate narratives for shedding light on this dominant aspect of the 20th century and its continued influence into the 21st.

Niall Gallen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham supported by M4C. His research focuses on the artistic and literary analogues to the contemporary theory of accelerationism, which describes a position that sees the increasing immanence of the social and technical in everyday life as both irreversible, and desirable. In some of its more recent manifestations, it also sees this tendency as necessary for overcoming the present stage of Capitalism (or Neoliberalism). His thesis explores the works of The Independent Group, Eduardo Paolozzi, J.G. Ballard and the output of the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (CCRU) in relation to accelerationism. By doing this, he hopes to reassess the responses to technology in their works as expressive of a continuous, but overlooked, tendency throughout British post-war literary and visual culture.

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