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I was doing some research on the 1920's author Leonard Cline to support an answer to this question, and I came across this October 2006 comment on his works by Weird Tales Magazine (defunct) [the first paragraph is long but relevant, the second paragraph contains the central point of this question]:

It would be too simple to dismiss this as kitsch were it not for two things. The first is the seminal importance of the story to modern horror fiction. As Douglas A. Anderson points out in his informative introduction, Lovecraft read the book and passed it along to several of his associates, including Donald Wandrei, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and Henry S. Whitehead. All of these wrote stories dealing with ancestral memory that owe their existence in large part to Cline, but Cline’s treatment of the theme, besides being the first, is also the most powerful. Cline used the Gothic trappings as a cultural shorthand that allowed him to communicate ideas that were cutting-edge during the 1920s.

He is an excellent example of how mainstream writers prior to the 1920s could utilize themes and subject matter that would be thrust into a literary ghetto in a few years with the rise of critics such as Irving Babbitt and Edmund Wilson.

I thought I was familiar with the development of the SF/horror genre, but the tail of the above quote left me with a major question regarding this "literary ghetto" as it pertains to Science Fiction/Horror genres. I followed the leads on Irving Babbitt and Edmund Wilson and found that they were polar opposite: conservative vs. socialist, respectively, and of two different generations (1865-1933 and 1895-1972). Leonard Cline's works of relevance were 1925-1927.

Wilson is also well known for his heavy criticism of J.R.R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, which he referred to as "juvenile trash", saying "Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form."

This has left me confused about the origin and history of this "literary ghetto" and its effect on Science Fiction. Lest this flow into philosophy or politics, I'd like to try to keep focused on the impact to the genre itself.

Was this "literary ghetto" a real thing, and if so, are there any concrete examples of a lasting effect on the Science Fiction/Horror genre?

  • Hmmm. I'm gonna have to look up this "Wilson" fella. I thought I was the only person in this world who found Tolkien's writing unbearable. – JRE Oct 11 '18 at 5:22
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    Michael Moorcock also found Lord of the Rings unbearable, much preferring Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which was published the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring and draws on some of the same myths. – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Oct 11 '18 at 8:09
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This appears to be the same author, Scott Connors, who has an essay in the literary crticism/analysis book The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror (edited by Justin Everett and Jeffrey H. Shanks, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). In the introduction, the following description is given of the piece, in a passage concerning the third section of the book:

Scott Connors leads off this section with a discussion of arguably the most talented stylist of the Weird Tales writers, Clark Ashton Smith. In “Pegasus Unbridled: Clark Ashton Smith and the Ghettoization of the Fantastic,” Connors explores Smith's struggles for literary acceptance in the face of a critical community that prejudicially confined weird fiction to the realm of the commercial."

I don't have the book (and Google Books doesn't permit me a view of any of the pages in question).

I haven't found references to Irving Babbitt's and Edmund Wilson's opinions on Science Fiction and Horror genre literature, so I don't know what that was in reference to.

However, the complaint about the snubbing of science fiction and related genre fiction as lowbrow literature unworthy of serious literary analysis is a long-standing one.

Even some SF authors (e.g. Michael Moorcock) themselves have complained of what they perceive as inferior literary qualities in much of SF:

Let's have a quick look at what a lot of science fiction lacks. Briefly, these are some of the qualities I miss on the whole – passion, subtlety, irony, original characterization, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs, colour, density, depth, and, on the whole, real feeling from the writer.

(Moorcock in a guest editorial in New Worlds, April 1963)

But on the other hand, another perspective is that:

The irony is that literary critics often deplore science fiction as popular literature tailored to mass-market tastes; but as Carl Freedman suggests, they have consistently refused to succor or support the writers who might produce science fiction more to their liking. In saying that much science fiction lacks the literary qualities they prefer, they effectively blame the victim.

(Science Fiction and Market Realities, edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin, University of Georgia Press, 1996)

A detailed history might be beyond the scope of this as a concise Q/A site, but one indicator of the reality of how SF/Fantasy/Horror (and for that matter mysteries) have not, for the most part been in particularly high regard by many "highbrow" literary critics (and thus have to largely stand apart, when it comes to recognition and promotion) is the rarity of science fiction, horror, and fantasy pieces among works to garner major non-genre literary awards over the past century.

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