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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Good Is Literature?

My graduate English class called “The Rise of the Novel” was discussing plot lines, and I mentioned the plot of a science fiction novel. The professor was in his seventies, fat, and gray, and known for his brilliance. Without even looking at me, he said, “What good is science fiction?” My immediate response was, “What good is any literature?” He cocked his head, paced back and forth, faced me directly, and said, “You know, you’re right.”

The question breaks down to: Is all literature just escape, like cotton candy? It’s fun, it tastes good, but does it provide nourishment? Here are my thoughts.

Hamlet’s  plot can be summarized as: uncle kills father and marries mother; son decides not to kill himself over it but to avenge his father. Where is the value in that? Arguably, Hamlet is the greatest piece of literature ever written. Where is the value? Is it in the view of Hamlet’s mind, Shakespeare’s mind, in making such a decision? Yes. Is it in the phrases such as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and “to thine own self be true,” that the play added to our language and that now help us to communicate? Yes. Is it in the commonality of experience that all of us who are familiar with Hamlet have something in common to discuss? Yes. And is it a fun three hours? Yes, it also is an escape.

So how about science fiction? Is it just like cotton candy: empty calories? Some science fiction, certainly, is empty, but look at the best. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Brin’s Startide Rising, or Niven’s Ringworld are filled with ideas: prediction through future history, uplift, and massive planetary engineering. That’s food for thought. All three also are interesting stories that delve deep into the minds of their characters, they add to our language (phrases like “uplift” and “future history”), they provide commonality among science fiction readers, and they are great to escape into. So they are, indeed, nourishing.

Is there less value in science fiction than in other literature? No. Just as there is some science fiction that has little of value, there are some plays, even Shakespeare plays (IMHO, Titus Andronicus) that have little of value. It all depends on the particular work. It is generally agreed that George R. R. Martin’s best work is his vampire novel, Fevre Dream. The subject matter or genre is irrelevant.

Some literature provides more nourishment than others, but nearly all literature provides food for the mind, food for the soul, and fun food, as well. Enjoy it. It’s good for you.

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