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A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I had no idea genre writers were so possessive of genre-specific ideas and devices. This is a new twist on the whole thing for me. I’ll have to go read that article. Seems silly, you’d think that would lend more ‘credibility’, if you will, to literature deemed to be ‘genre’, no?

    February 26, 2013
    • Thankfully, I think this view is in the minority. It is also held, I think, less often by writers (who more often than not have a sense of the arbitrariness in genre classification). But I’ve seen and heard such views espoused by fans stridently defending “our” genre often enough for it to get my dander up. ;)

      I get the impression that this view is gradually diminishing in the wild, and hope that it goes extinct soon. :-)

      February 27, 2013
  2. My complaint is along the lines of ‘the sin of ignorance.’ To take a specific example: in Oryx & Crake, Atwood used a lot of “as you know bob” to deliver her backstory. That threw me out of the story because it’s bad writing If she hadn’t written off genre as consisting of space-squids with nothing to offer, she could have learned any of a dozen more effective ways to provide readers with the necessary background information.

    I’m happy to see mainstream writers using genre tropes. I just wish they’d do a better job of it, and maybe learn from what’s gone before instead of reinventing the wheel.

    February 26, 2013
    • Fair enough! Those are perfectly reasonable complaints, and I have no problem if someone says “Margaret Atwood writes science fiction badly” and then backs it up with arguments. That’s the kind of critical discussion that I think is well worth having, and which I would hope mainstream writers found equally valuable.

      It is the more reductive, over-generalized version of the argument (the one that says “Atwood is ignorant of science fiction, so she is unworthy of being considered a science fiction author”) which I object to. There are plenty of bad SF writers out there, and yes, some of them are published by mainstream imprints. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t claim ‘em, too. ;-)

      February 26, 2013
  3. I agree completely, Chris. Great post (although I still think that The Road has some issues that could have been solved with just a few weeks worth of reading in post-apocalyptic genre fiction), issues that hampered my ability to fully appreciate the story.

    February 26, 2013
    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed my little rant. :-)

      Sure, The Road is not without its issues. We can discuss, differ, and agree in our assessments of a particular title’s strengths, weaknesses, and innovations. That’s part of the awesome critical conversation we get to engage in.

      The trick for speculative fiction, I think, is to reach out to those who read The Road and enjoyed it, but who haven’t yet discovered SF. For example, if I ever meet a fan of The Road, I’ll try and foist Matheson’s I Am Legend onto them (alas, the recent WIll Smith movie doesn’t help, but dammit, I’ll try anyway!) and it is that opportunity for thematic and creative commonality that we should try to leverage.

      February 27, 2013
  4. Thanks for this perspective! It’s also our job as speculative fiction writers to win over the mainstream. We may have to do it one reader at a time, but those ‘mainstream’ writers who use speculative elements also help us by making their reading public more open to different genres. I’m the only speculative fiction writer in my ‘meat’ writing group, and even though it’s taken a year or three, I’ve won some of them over to the ‘dark’ side. It’s a matter of convincing people that writing is writing and it’s either good or bad or maybe in between and has nothing to do with the tentacle count.

    February 27, 2013
  5. Hmmm. I think my issue with the use of speculative tropes in mainstream fiction is just that it rankles me to see someone disparage the genre even while using it’s tropes. It rankles me just as much as when I see an actor from a completely SF television show sniff disdainfully and say something like “But [show] isn’t really science fiction–it’s more about PEOPLE.” That kind of blinkerism just isn’t pretty. However, I’m all for them using this stuff–though I’d be happier if they’d do a better job of it; most of the examples I’ve read left me cold.

    February 27, 2013

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