Joe Fassler’s How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction is almost believable, but I don’t buy the premise of his essay: “Realistic stories once dominated American literature, but now writers are embracing the fantastical. What happened?”
Realistic stories might’ve once dominated perceived highbrow fiction, but they’ve always been present in a lot of literature, even capital-L Literature. Notice this from the article: “Led by their patron saint, Raymond Carver, American minimalists like Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, and Tobias Wolff used finely-tuned vernacular to explore the everyday problems of everyday people.” It completely ignores, say, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and Ursula K. le Guin, all of whom did significant work during that time that’s also widely respected. If I had to bet, I’d put money on Gibson being more literarily important than than everyone else on Fassler’s list in a hundred years. And, at least outside of MFA programs, more important today.
Hell, even John Updike, who’s sometimes associated with banal domestic problems, wrote The Witches of Eastwick in 1984 and The Widows of Eastwick in 2008. So I think this story says more about people who perceive themselves to be highbrow ignoring everything else that goes on around them, until the “everything else” becomes the mainstream, even in people who perceive themselves to be engaging in highbrow Literary Discourse. The rest of us know that there hasn’t been a period—and I’m speaking from Beowulf to the present—without its share of monsters, demons, and supernatural powers, even if critics sometimes like to pretend there has been.