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Literary Critic John Sutherland on Science Fiction

About a month ago, I was browsing the new books section in the library when I came across an intriguing title: How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland. I glanced quickly through the book, and it looked like an interesting read. More importantly, however, the author displayed a sense of humor. The back of the book displayed a quotation from within the book itself, advising readers to be wary of endorsements on books (i.e. blurbs). But the back cover also boasted an endorsement: "This is a truly important book: no novel reader should travel the fictional road with it."

The source of the blurb? "John Sutherland, critic and literary guide."

So when I took it home to read, I was already primed to enjoy it. But it gets better.

When I pick up a book like this, and I see from the author biography that the author is a professor of English literature and the 2005 chair of the Man Booker Prize, I tend to make certain assumptions about the author's tastes. In particular, I go in expecting an author who recommends "highbrow" work, and who would exhibit disdain for "lowly" genre works, such as books found in the mystery, romance, and science fiction sections of the bookstore.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Sutherland had a taste for genre, apparently inculcated at a young age, but never abandoned completely. Although he does seem to have devoted his life and career to the "highbrow" works, he doesn't dismiss any work simply because it falls into a genre.

In fact, near the end of the book, he has this to say about my favorite genre of fiction:


Science fiction has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since C.P. Snow's 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons' epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. The fact, revealed in a survey by the magazine Wired in November 2005, that 40 per cent of Americans none the less believe that aliens are in the habit of routinely visiting our planet and taking away sample earthlings for full body cavity probes, suggests that sf may also have a lot to answer for in the dumbing down of the citizenry. But, on the whole, the genre has, I believe, made us more knowledgeable. (page 240)


I suppose I should not have been completely surprised. In the United Kingdom, where Sutherland comes from, they don't look down at genre fiction as much as they do in the United States. As it stands, at the conclusion of his book Sutherland includes a list of recommended novels, and among that list I found some of the better works of science fiction published throughout history. With any luck, he'll convince a few more people to pick a book within the genre and see for themselves its legitimacy.

Comments

I've never understood how a culture that reveres E. M. Forster as "high brow" ingores his fantasy/sf works. I appears to me that magic realism, also considered "high brow" is a sister genre to sf.

On the bright side, Bradbury and Le Guin are both taught in literature courses -- or at least some that I've taken.

There's hope.
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