Station Eleven: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction’s Perseverance

In late 2014, when Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—a book wherein 99.9% of the world’s population has been wiped out by something called the Georgia Flu—was announced as a National Book Award Finalist, she received rare validation that genre fiction can be literary. More importantly, she proved that post-apocalyptic fiction hasn’t gone stale.

Mandel published three earlier crime novels with Colorado small press Unbridled Books, achieving critical—but not much monetary—success. So when a three day, six publisher bidding war over Station Eleven erupted, netting her a mid-six-figure advance, Mandel wasn’t exactly prepared. “When I started writing, there were a few literary post-apocalyptic novels, but not quite the incredible glut that there is now,” Mandel said in a New York Times interview. “I was afraid the market might be saturated.”

Hot on the heels of Edan Lepucki’s California release, Joe Mathews of Slate released an article called “Yesterday’s Apocalypse” discussing the book and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction as a whole:

“Too many of the narratives that drive today’s apocalyptic stories owe a debt to California writer Philip K. Dick […] Lepucki’s [California], while beautifully written, also feels dated. Her post-apocalyptic world of tomorrow seems driven by fears that come from the California of the 1970s and 1980s: overpopulation (not much of a concern in a state where immigration has flat-lined and the birthrate has fallen to below-replacement levels), food shortages (when cheap, obesity-boosting food is all too available), crime and violence (today at record lows), and the rise of the gated exurbs for the rich. [Lepucki], while evasive on most details, also pins the apocalypse on today’s hot buttons: Climate change, terrorism, and income equality seem to have wiped out many cities and people. […] You see, it’s challenging being imaginative in your apocalyptic musings when there is so much to be annoyed about today. [Our] visions of the future, dark or light, feel so unoriginal, so limited. It’s time to cast a wider net.”

Mathews fails to see that there are so many compelling post-apocalyptic stories nowbecause their premises are all so plausible, so within reach with the escalating turmoil of our real modern world. Mathews’ criticism is on point when it comes to California, though, and it’s this cynicism that makes critics—and often readers—skeptical about picking up a post-apocalyptic novel (let’s face it though: the majority of post-apocalyptic novels are high stakes, hit-or-miss tales). But there has always been a misguided critical stiffness when it comes to genre fiction. Mandel, though she’s the most recent big-time success story, isn’t nearly the first critically successful literary author to cross over.

Glen Duncan, an English novelist, was told that—after seven previous low-selling literary novels—his best shot at publishing again would be to take a run at genre fiction; his The Last Werewolf series—though it wasn’t originally planned as such—is a commercial and critical success. Justin Cronin, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Mary and O’Neil, has published two of three books (The Passage and The Twelve) of his vampire trilogy. Tom Perrotta, critically acclaimed author of Election and Little Children, took on the Rapture with 2011’s The Leftovers. Colson Whitehead, a former MacArthur Fellow and Whiting Writers Award winner, published the post-apocalyptic zombie novel Zone One (which was, admittedly, a rambling disappointment from a usually calculating and efficient author).

The literary-commercial crossover hit is rare, but not unheard of. Duncan, Cronin, Perotta, and Whitehead attempted the move when the term “literary genre fiction” was laughed off by critics.

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