A writer like Stephen King, in contrast, is less interested in illuminating the everyday than in placing his characters in extraordinary and absolutely decisive moments. The beauty and value of the ordinary don’t really apply when the family dog is going on a homicidal rampage. Or, to take a less caricatured example, we might consider the scene in The Stand when old Mother Abigail staggers back from a devastating but epiphanic experience in the wilderness to give to her followers a message from God – and not just a message, but a command. Reactions to her announcement vary: some believe her wholly; some trust her but doubt the existence or the goodness of the God in whose name she speaks; some mistrust, resist, or even hate her. But though King registers these nuances of response, he also makes it clear that at this crux in the community’s history—in human history—they don’t matter much. Those to whom she has addressed her word of command must obey, or refuse. That is the choice facing them. Nothing else matters. Everything hangs on that decision.

What we call “genre fiction"—like Ursula LeGuin I think the term useless but can’t quite get beyond it yet—tends to focus on moments like that. It strips away the usual and familiar contexts of our lives and replaces them with radically simplified environments: a small crew on a spaceship, a detective trying to stop a killer before he can reach another victim, a lawman in a Western town confronting a lawless gang, a superhero trying to track down a psychopathic criminal mastermind bent on destroying a whole city. It does this kind of thing in the belief, which is as fully justified as the belief that we lose sight of both the pain and the beauty of our daily lives, that such pared-down and dramatically focused moments are revelatory. They tell the characters who they really are, or what in the course of life they have become. We tend to identify with those characters and in so doing try to learn something about ourselves, by proxy if not directly.