Transcending Genre: Why 1984 is Literature and Starship Troopers Is Not

Right off, I have to make a disclaimer. I don’t actually believe in what the title of this piece suggests–that there is a pecking order separating Literature (capital L) from genre, and that it has something to do with a quantifiable approach to form. If we really wanted to sort out what Henry James and many 20th Century critics mean by Literature from all the rest of the publishing world, we’d be remiss if we didn’t go back to the precursors of contemporary literature and make the same qualifiers apply.

Immediately we have a problem. Where does one put Gulliver’s Travels? What about most of James Fenimore Cooper? And Robert Louis Stevenson? Rudyard Kipling? Jules Verne?

Starting with H. G. Wells, we begin to see the delineation. Henry James took Wells to task for writing beneath his ability by paying attention to all sorts of things having no direct bearing on or descent from character.

Character. That’s where it starts and ends for most serious modern critics. And by modern, I mean from about 1920 to the present.

A few years ago a very good critic named Sven Birkerts, in a review of Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, came right out and made the statement that science fiction will never–never–be Literature with a capital L. In his words: “…science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L’, and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.”

When I plucked the two books out of the air to compare in this talk, my first intention was to take two works that both qualify as science fiction and see why one remains solidly genre and the other has the appellation of Literature, despite its clearly science fictional qualities. I didn’t at the time realize how similar the two books were in many ways. As it turns out, they are ideal for this kind of comparison. For 1984 is indeed Literature, and for precisely the reason Mr. Birkerts argued–it is drenched in character. Starship Troopers is virtually without character. My position is that this fact in no way renders the one superior over the other. Merely different, even while they share similarities.

At first glance, there could not be two novels more different. In spite of the ongoing war depicted in Starship Troopers, it is relentlessly optimistic. It is born of an American optimism that must have been pervasive during World War II. 1984, on the other hand, is one of the most profoundly cynical and pessimistic novels not written by a Russian–a pessimism, interestingly enough, also born in WWII.

Yet in both we see a member of the middle class–and I’m stretching the label here just a bit–laying out how the society in which he lives functions. Both have become members of the power elite–one having joined through the inevitabilities of survival, the other out of a vague desire to actually have power, specifically the vote. Both societies are run by minorities. The vast majority of populations in both novels neither understand nor care about how things are run. The justifications for the societal structures are part of the narrative. Both are persuasive in making their cases, yet both cases are seriously flawed, yet to those who live within them, they are utterly convincing, also in both cases. In the end, neither Johnny Rico nor Winston Smith have lives of their own.

Now, before I say more, with all that they share these two novels are fundamentally different in one basic way. Approach. Which in this instance, for the purposes of this discussion, is the only difference that really matters. As I said, Starship Troopers is virtually devoid of character. Oh, there’s charm. Johnny Rico has a glib, pseudo personality that comes through in his travelogue–which is what Starship Troopers is basically, a travelogue–but we end up knowing almost nothing about him. We don’t know if he ever had any hobbies, we don’t know how he feels about girls or sports or politics or music or art or theater. These things are mentioned along the way and there’s the implication that, yeah, sure, he likes all those things well enough, even understands some of them, but it’s like a resume, not an actual revelation. By the end of the book, we may sort of like Johnny, but it’s his almost boyish enthusiasm for defending the human race and his modest competence that wins us over. If asked, “How about that Johnny Rico? What’s he like?” What could we say? Not much.

Winston Smith, on the other, is as fully fleshed a character as might be encountered in fiction. We know his obsessions, his fears, his reactions to various stimuli, we know his opinions, we know his ignorance. Above all, we know his ignorance, and the pathetic will to challenge limitations that ultimately dooms him. He is a human being in a horrible situation and we know him as well if not better than we know Oceania and Big Brother. Because we see very clearly how his situation affects him. Personally. We don’t get that insight with Johnny Rico.

When modern critics and theorists talk about Literature with a capital L, that’s what they’re talking about. In a nutshell, Starship Troopers in prescriptive. It’s concerned with its premise, it wants to tell you about the way things work, and that is primarily what it’s all about. 1984 is concerned with its main character and while you certainly learn all about how Oceania works, you learn about it through its impact on Winston. He’s not a guide, he’s a victim. He not a narrator, he’s an inhabitant. In the scheme of things, though, I have to ask: So What? I mentioned Gulliver’s Travels. This, too, is a travelogue. How come it’s not considered genre? Well, for one, it was written before any such considerations had any meaning. It’s old, and still read. It has survived, and thus has passed a major test. But for a contemporary sensibility, it becomes Literature by virtue of the fact that it’s satire. This is, by the way, how Kurt Vonnegut manages to be regarded as Literature, rather than genre–he’s a satirist. Of the first water, to be sure, but a satirist nevertheless. Satire, for some reason, seems immune from the castigation of the Literati.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with a certain amount of labeling in fiction. It’s not so bad to let people know more or less what kind of story they’re about to read when they pick up a book. If I’m in the mood for, say, a mystery thriller, I’m going to be miffed if I get a sacharine romance instead. The harm is in making the label a hierarchical judgement. To say that such-and-such sort of story is necessarily inferior by virtue of its conceits. Because all conceits can be used to make great art.

That said, I want to make a few observations about the use of art, which I think has much to do with its reception and classification as great, middlebrow, or vulgar. Unfortunately, what each person defines as Art is subjective. There are a couple of methods by which we determine what is Art, one of which is the test of time. If enough people over a long enough period agree that a work is, in fact, Art, we tend to accept the designation. The other method is both less and more democratic, and that is if we discover that a work impacts people differently–I mean, significantly differently–even while evoking similar responses. Repeatedly. That is to say, if you pick up a book and read it at ages 12, 18, 25, and 35 and come away with a deeper, fresher appreciation of the work, then you probably have a work of art in your hands. Works that aren’t up to that description exhaust themselves with one, at most two readings. But a work of Art–capital A–lives, insofar as it interacts with us as an aspect of growth. This is subjective as well, because the reactions are personal, but again if the reaction is definite and rich each time–and, linking this to the first test, is something more and more people experience, each in their own unique way–then the work in question is probably Art. And Literature–capital L–is Art–capital A.

You may detect a bit of tongue in cheek at this point. That’s because any attempt to create categories which are all-encompassing is doomed to fail since there will always be a way to step outside the category and still create Art. Is Starship Troopers literature? In the sense of great Art, no.  Is 1984? Yes. And it’s all in the way each book brings us into its world. 1984, for all that it’s a bleak, dismal ride, draws us in fully, engages the emotions, makes us feel what Winston is going through. We don’t get that with Johnny Rico.

This is a function of character, certainly. But it’s also a function of the conception of the worlds. Heinlein was interested in laying out a blueprint. He describes how his system ought to work. It’s even elegant, and an engaging read. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good book. But a blueprint is not a house. Orwell built a house–which means that he didn’t neglect the stains on the carpet, the dust on the shelves, and aging furniture, and the faulty thermostat. He left the flaws in and made us feel that you could walk into this world and live in it and recognize it as a real place–emotionally.

Now you have to ask: does this make any difference insofar as the kind of fiction the two books represent? No. 1984 is science fiction in every definition of the term. Just because it is also a wholly fleshed world with well-drawn characters does not magically remove it from that definition. But it brings us to the common failure of any book in any genre to transcend that genre.

A good novel–like any good work of art–always gives more than it seems to contain. It always offers the reader more than one avenue, more than one way to read it, always surprises with its possibilities. Such a book depends on its genre conceits, if it has any, but it is not limited by them. And there is no genre which in and of itself automatically limits these possibilities.

But some books–some writers–quite comfortably remain within genre limits, because it’s fun. There’s a pleasure to be found inside those walls, and it’s always a mistake to dismiss a work as genre as if to say that makes it inferior. It would be like condeming an Ansel Adams photograph because it’s not a painting, then condeming it further because it accepts a naturalistic approach to subject as opposed to a surrealist approach. Apples and corkscrews. Starship Troopers is an excellent example of the kind of book it strives to be. It should be judged accordingly.

I said Starship Troopers is prescriptive. So is another of Heinlein’s great novels, Stranger In A Strange Land. But that novel goes beyond its genre limitation insofar as Michael Valentine Smith–and those around him–are far more richly affected and affecting. Partly, this is because the world they inhabit is more fully realized, more emphatically tactile and human. But it still offers the pleasures of its basic form, which is didactic.

As is Orwell’s other famous work, Animal Farm–which is in no way a character novel. All the characters are archetypes, some even stereotypes, and unapologetically so. It is also a blueprint. If Stranger In A Strange Land is Heinlein’s 1984, Animal Farm is Orwell’s Starship Troopers. But Animal Farm is also blatantly satirical. It declares itself so almost from the first sentence. Starship Troopers strives in its way to be naturalistic. We’re meant to take Heinlein’s effort at face value as mimesis.

There is one other use of art which is vitally important and utterly personal, and I’ll wrap this up by talking about it. Nostalgia. Not so much in the evocation within the text of a time gone by, but in the evocation of an emotional response to a given work. This is why the homage functions, why it’s possible to write an homage. Because much that we treasure, we reacted to in a time and place where its importance became paramount. There is no way an artist can do this intentionally. All he or she can do is make the work as well as possible and as honestly as possible, because it is good and honest work that creates this particular aspect of art.

Some books, as I said, exhaust themselves after a reading or two. But going over them again and again, triggering those reactions long ago made familiar, is a legitimate use of art. You don’t expect to find something new in this use, you expect to relive a pleasant experience. So Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has engendered a number of homages. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is the first I remember. More recently there is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. All these works function because they play on the original impact of the Heinlein. They can also be read quite easily and pleasantly on their own, but they are part of a tradition. 1984, while it is part of a tradition of dystopias, does not need or invite homages or this sort, because we don’t read it for that reason.