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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Literature versus Speculative Fiction: From Children’s to Adult Stories, Why All the Antagonism?


I straightened my sons’ messy bookshelves this evening and took a survey of their vast collection, curious how many books could be classified as speculative fiction or literature/contemporary/realism.

What the survey first revealed was that my sons are well on their way to becoming bibliophiles. Between them, they own well over 100 books, despite a combined age of less than 10.

For the purposes of this discussion, I did not count books of nonfiction like the three separate volumes we own on dinosaur species. Nor did I count any book that clearly was for the primary purpose of learning such basics as numbers, letters, colors, animal names, and so forth. I also excluded early readers.

Anything that had talking animals or inanimate objects, took place in outer space, or had such things as could obviously never happen, like a big red dog the size of a house or dinosaurs coming to life (Can you tell my sons love dinosaurs?), I placed in the speculative fiction category. Everything else, including the volumes that I had trouble deciding on, went into the literature/contemporary/realism category.

Literature/contemporary/realism totaled 24 books. Speculative fiction hit a whopping 77.

Perhaps you could argue biases such as the fact that I enjoy speculative fiction more than realism and so would naturally purchase more of that type for my sons. This is true, except that the vast majority of my sons’ books were gifts from other people. So, to avoid the bias as much as possible, let’s knock off 10 books from the speculative fiction list as an approximate of those I’ve purchased directly for my boys. That’s still 24 to 67, a notable disparity. Let’s even be really heavy handed and knock off 20 books. That’s 24 to 57. Speculative fiction is still more than double the number of literature/contemporary/realism.

Thinking of the television shows my sons watch, a similar separation exists. Let’s take PBS as an example. Of the 20 shows aired on PBS Kids, only 3 have no obvious speculative element. So, clearly, this vast difference goes beyond my sons’ bookshelves.

But why does this huge disparity exist?

We start our children off reading stories of the impossible, the fantastic, and the bizarre. Then slowly over their educational years, we transfer them to pure literature and realism with a little Poe, Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Malory thrown in for good measure. Some even go as far as to condemn anything fantastic in fiction as base or somehow lesser, as genre.

Why do we do this to our children and ourselves? Is it that, by shifting further and further away from speculative elements, we symbolically separate ourselves from childhood? Does literature and realism somehow equate with being grown up and sophisticated, mature? If so, I know a great number of adults who should still trot around with backpacks depicting Big Bird and hate naps, myself included.

Is it that some have come to the realization that no matter the story components, maturity is separate and that they can appreciate any range? But if the case, why do many speculative fiction fans figuratively growl at any literary works on due principle?

Or is this phenomenon our usual human tendency to separate ourselves into us and them? Does our preferred style of storytelling indicate some psychological difference or alternate way of learning about and expressing human experience? Is it symbolic of our contentment with life or how much we embrace our present reality?

Personally, I think the answer is complex and could do with some psychological and anthropological studies. (If anyone knows of any, please post them in the comments section. I’d love to read them.) I believe that a person’s preference for the fantastic or realistic reflects little upon their maturity or mental stability. I’m more inclined to the belief that it simply represents slightly different ways of viewing life and differing aspects of storytelling that appeal to different individuals, much like flavors of ice cream. My brother loves strawberry. I can’t stand it, but I adore rocky road.

What do you think? Is it wrong to subject/permit our kids to so much fantasy? Is it wrong to later condemn through choice of reading lists said fantasy? What makes the difference between a person who prefers genre fiction and the one who only enjoys literary, contemporary, or realism?

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