In her Strange Horizons essay registering her curiosity about the current SF scene after several years' absence from it, Susannah Mandel notes a loosening of the idea that science fiction is "a ghettoized genre form, excluded due to its fantastic elements from the realm of respected, 'artistic' literature, which is dominated by the mode of narrative realism." She further notes that a number of those previously associated with "artistic literature"--including Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and John Updike--have recently at least dabbled in the "tropes, concepts, or premises historically associated with fantastic fiction" and wonders "How many of these writers have, historically, worked only as realists?"
To me, it isn't so surprising that writers nominally associated with "realism" would occasionally try out the tropes and premises of SF and other categories of genre fiction. Most such realists actually have a lot in common with most genre writers: Both are wedded to story, and both are motivated by an essentially realistic approach to storytelling. Although the stories being told in SF/Fantasy are more expressly "make-believe," they don't thereby get extra credit for being somehow more legitimately make-believe than realism. And even at its most conceptually fantastic in terms of plot and setting, most science fiction (at least in my reading experience) is even more earnestly realistic in presenting its characters and their interactions with their surroundings than most realism. Great efforts are made to present these characters and their actions in minute realistic detail, as if the author is describing a real world that just happens to be strangely transformed from ours.
Richard Larson, in his own response to Mandel's essay, puts it this way: "many of the most prominent mainstream writers are. . .stretching the boundaries of realism to fit their needs within particular stories." These writers are "stretching the boundaries," not abandoning the territory. They are working "within particular stories," using genre "tropes" to create compelling narratives, a conception of the writer's job shared by both realist and fantasist.
Richard suggests further that" People who like Cormac McCarthy and John Updike are not likely to enjoy Dan Simmons or William Gibson, no matter how much people within the genre community say that the books are just so similar" and that this is because these readers will notice in reading The Road or Toward the End of Time a difference in form that will override any similarities in content. While I doubt that either of these novels departs so thoroughly from the conventions of storytelling as to seem that alien to most readers of SF (I think the differences with these two writers are primarily stylistic differences), I do think Richard is pointing out a salient distinction to be made between SF and a certain kind of "literary fiction." It's just that the literary fiction I have in mind has little to do with "realism."
Although Matt Cheney thinks the "form-content distinction" is "more an occasionally-useful illusion than an idea that really fosters good analysis," in this case the distinction is not just useful but absolutely necessary in understanding why the conflict between SF as "a ghettoized genre form" and "artistic literature" as "narrative realism" is largely illusory and certainly not a worthy battle to fight if the stakes include the right to claim the genre as an "alternative" to stuffed-shirt "literary" writing.
To put it succinctly: Why does Mandel, or any partisan of genre fiction, believe the relevant opposition is between realism and not-realism, the latter defined crudely as "fantasy"? Why does she assume that the dominant mode of "artistic" fiction in the 20th and now the 21st century has been and continues to be "realism" in the first place?
If we take the modernists as the founders of "artistic fiction," is it entirely accurate to think of them as realists? To be sure, Proust, Joyce, and Woolf pursued their formal and stylistic innovations partly to achieve what we would now call "psychological realism"--the idea that perception, what goes on inside the human head, is just as vital part of "reality" as what goes on "outside"--and thus Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway could be called works of realism, if not conventionally so. But what about Finnegans Wake? Orlando? What about Kafka or Bulgakov? Is Faulkner best understood as a realist? Is this where his "artistry" lies?
Is it really plausible to claim that the important postwar, postmodern "artistic" fiction is realist? John Hawkes? Nabokov? Donald Barthelme? William Gass, Robert Coover, John Barth? Gilbert Sorrentino?
Among the younger generations of "artistic" writers, which are rightfully called realists? David Foster Wallace? Jonathan Lethem? George Saunders? Granted, a great deal of "literary fiction" of the past 25 or so years has turned away from the formal experimentation and stylistic chutzpah of the postmodernists, and even writers such as Ian McEwan and Richard Powers, whose earlier work could not at all be easily located in the realm of realism, have devolved into something resembling realists, but this sort of retrorealism hardly seems a worthy opponent in the war between reality-bending genre fiction and "artistic literature."
The most distinguished American realist currently still at work, Stephen Dixon, perhaps does stand as a worthy opponent in this conflict. Is Dixon's style of "narrative realism"--which leans heavily on the "realism" at the expense of "narrative"--what those who decry it have in mind? Certainly it eschews fantasy for an obsessive chronicle of the particulars of "real life," but his methods hardly seem representative of the "mode" Susannah Mandel thinks is dominant in current literary fiction. Indeed, one wonders whether Dixon's radical suspension of scene-setting and narrative drama isn't just a little too, well, radical for the genre radicals who think realism is too stodgy. Dixon's fiction illustrates just where the narrative realists and the narrative anti-realists are dancing to the same tune. It's experimental where they are stubbornly traditional: it implicitly posits that fiction has many more unexplored approaches to the depiction of human experience that go beyond the tired storytelling formulas shared by many narrative realists and narrative antirealists alike.