It was announced on My 16th that my favorite television show, Jericho, will not live to see a second season.
Jericho was about a small town in Kansas right after a nuclear holocaust. I liked it because, first of all, post-apocalyptic fiction is always fun, whether it be in book form (A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of my favorite books, and Alas Babylon, while in my opinion ultimately silly, was worth reading), movie form, or as a television series. And I think the show did a good job portraying what would happen (the breakdown of law and order, vigilantism, the rise of a bartering system) while at the same time having fairly interesting characters. I’m sad to see it go.
Now, post-apocalyptic fiction is just one form of what I’ve seen called “speculative fiction”. It ‘asks the classic “What if?” question and attempts to answer it’. In the case of Jericho, it asks, what would happen if the U.S. was attacked by terrorists wielding 25 nuclear bombs? Other examples would be fantasy books (like the Lord of the Rings), sci-fi, alternate histories, etc.
My question is, can these achieve the status of literature? So-called “genre works” are usually excluded from the category of literature, but I can’t really see a decent argument for why this should be. The reason seems to be to exclude works that aren’t literarily serious, that are written just to make money, or whatever. But why can’t that be done on a case-by-case basis, instead of excluding a whole group of works? It seems to me that the rule is arbitrary.
In fact, I think there is an argument to be made that speculative fiction is the best kind of literature. Fiction that deals only with how life actually is has a hard time, in my experience, being more that just social criticism. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, explores what aspects of humanity – or, in the case of works with non-human races, sentience – are universal.
If you take the Allegory of the Cave as your model of wisdom, literature is a way of learning about the nature of sunlight by looking at the other people who are chained up with you, and how the light reflects off of them. (Science is studying the shadows themselves, and philosophy is trying to turn around and look directly at the light.)
It seems to me that you can learn more about the nature of the light the more generalized the knowledge you gain from looking from side to side is. Speculative fiction, done well, can help the captive learn more about the light than even the best social criticism. So, while I’m not going to claim that Jericho was literature (it was good, but not anything particularly deep, I don’t think), I do think that A Canticle for Leibowitz is literature, and pretty good literature at that.