Someone recently asked me why I use the term “speculative literary fiction” to describe the genre of my novels. While both terms are used frequently on their own, they are not often paired together.
Speculative fiction is a term coined by Margaret Atwood in an effort to avoid the hard-core sci-fi label (she said she needed a category that meant sci-fi without Martians). It has been used to describe a number of sub genres—space opera, techno-thrillers, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, even fantasy—basically anything that is not “real world.” The key to speculative fiction is the what-if aspect. What if the world as we know it was different in one or more ways? While this what-if, alternate history/alternate world approach can be used to explore future technology or just spin a good yarn, it also enables an author to focus on some theme by altering an aspect of the world as we know it.
Literary fiction is usually understood to mean quality writing, deeper characters and an exploration of universal themes.
So why combine the two? The primary purpose of declaring a genre is to set the expectation of the prospective reader.
Using the term speculative fiction by itself can misrepresent a book. Readers might expect Star Wars or the Zombie Apocalypse, or an emphasis on some hypothetical technology such as faster than light spaceships or time travel. Literary fiction tends to imply real world, such as The Help or The Secret Life of Bees.
Many great books have speculative premises, but are literary in nature. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example, or the works of Usrula LeGuin. Even a novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road might fit. While it’s certainly post-apocalyptic–we find out little about the cataclysm that brought about the current state–the author dwells on the relationship between the man and the boy, and the power of love. Another example might be Never Let Me go by Kazuo Ishiguro. While the what-if of this world is the use of cloning to grow organs, it’s told from the viewpoint of the clones, and shows much more about relationships and the human condition than about technology.
I use speculative literary fiction as a term to distinguish alternate history or alternate worlds, where the emphasis is not on whiz-bang technology, aliens, space travel or the like, but more on deeper characters and universal themes, brought to the fore by the unique difference in the imagined society or world.