The Stuff the Idiom Was Made On
Blunt force disruptions as narrative triggers, stakes so extraordinary as to be incredible, complications solid as a fist in the face, events as physical as an airship exploding... it's only natural that these are more engaging. But that's the rub: they appeal to anyone and everyone -- including children and the uneducated -- and so to the petit-bourgeois reader they become signifiers of a base taste that must be abjured. Cock forbid we enjoy the sensational relished by the unsophisticated palate!
The miserable poverty of critical savvy in this attitude must be made clear. There's absolutely no need to lose one's appreciation of the sensational in order to gain an additional appreciation for the less immediately engaging, even the outright challenging. One just needs a keener attention, sharper reading senses to extend the range of works one finds rewarding. But if your middle-brow banality sets a glass ceiling here, well, you've little choice but to lower your valuation of the "sensational" thereby raising your valuation of the "intellectual" relative to it. Or "crude" and "sophisticated," or "juvenile" and "mature" -- pick your rhetoric. Of course, the strategy is compensation for an absence of development, for the absence of that additional attentive appreciation whereby Ulysses could be ten times as taxing and still be worth it for the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end.
If you're really reaping the rewards of subtler literature, you shouldn't have to cast them in relief against the rewards of sensationalist stories, rendering the latter as ignoble in order to glorify the former. There is nothing more adolescent than disdain for the infantile; so too with the self-styled sophisticate scorning the "jejune." And it is the mark of the true mediocrity never to mature beyond this sophomoric hubris. The action of expressing (which is to say posturing) a superior taste (which is to say superior propriety) only serves to advertise a failure to abstract and appreciate with objectivity the form and function of a literary spear-thrower. Picasso saw the gracile purity of a cave painting. Joyce and Potter saw the same in popular music, trite as its sentiments might be. Obliviousness to the same in pulp fiction is a deficit in any artist or critic.
Sadly, middle-class propriety has institutionalised this sad strategy of self-validation. It's nigh impossible to be raised within the cloisters of the discourse and not have the received values drummed into you by the ceaselessly droned rote. Except one is sensitised by abjected status, perhaps, to that bootstrapping strategy of privilege by prejudice, it takes a rather thrawn soul to turn a harsh eye on one's own thoughtless dismissals. (Doubt is, after all, always-already thoughtlessly dismissed.) Even, it seems, for those of us allied with the sensational via category fiction and passionate about its potentials.
Indeed, through the slow gentrification of category fiction, the environmental antipathy to (or angst about) sensationalism has arguably consolidated into an institutional standard. We can talk about "sense of wonder" all we want. The very voices most fervent in lauding the potential of science fiction in that regard often seem those most wedded to the aesthetic that abjures the sensationalist. Call it Anglo-American Neorealism, that post-WWII return to the enterprise of edification, that literary trend begun by radicals, appropriated by reactionaries. In science fiction perhaps more than any other genre, concern with intellectual credibility (both scientific and literary) set technophiliac and scientistic enthusiasts in sympathy with those neorealists, disavowing intellectual credulousness, advocating to all intents and purposes against the very stuff the idiom was made on.
The argument has been productive, as all such dialectics of aesthetics are, but ultimately the weight of anti-sensational thought has prevailed in establishing an authoritative propriety that partitions science fiction in much the same way Krystal partitions literature. One can argue c.f. Knight and similar that sf is a nominal label for the extant body of all speculative literature, established as too diverse for definition in the marketing category up until the segregation out of Fantasy in the 1970s. But amid the chaos of clashing aesthetics, a dominating propriety fervently denies this, essentially setting only what we might call "neorealist science fiction" as legitimate. And subsequent to the segregation out of Fantasy, with the generation of terms like "slipstream" and "interstitial," it is hard to sustain an all-inclusive usage both practically and theoretically. Unlike Krystal's "literature," the neorealist's "science fiction" is quite solidly defensible.
Although the literary decorum of this mode of strange fiction is where, incidentally, I might well source the crisis characterised by Kincaid as "exhaustion."
Just so you know.