Jan 18 2012 12:00pm

What is Genre in the Mainstream? Why Should You Care?

Genre in the Mainstream

While riding in the back seat of a friend’s car on the way to Thanksgiving, another friend turned around from the front seat and began relating to me how she’d attended a recent panel discussion at the Center for Fiction called “Why Fantasy Matters.” This friend is a writer and editor of mainstream literary fiction.

“Why are you guys always talking about the definition of genre?” she asked, “Why does it matter? Why can’t science fiction and fantasy writers just do their thing and shut up about genre definitions?”

To me this question had at its root another question: why is the discussion about genre definition valuable to writers and readers? With the new year upon us, and a slew of genre-bending books inbound for 2012, I thought I’d pause for a moment and talk about what we talking about when we talking about genre in the mainstream.  

First, I think it’s important to understand what I mean when I say “genre in the mainstream.” Semantically speaking, science fiction and fantasy are “mainstream” concepts. It’s not as though genre fiction relies upon automatic writing, incoherent sentences or bizarre word jumbles. If anything, genre fiction actually tends to be more conventional in structure than “literary” fiction. (With obvious exceptions.) What I mean here is the plot and central concepts (MacGuffin if you want to use that terrible word) tend to rule the day in science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror. Our genres aren’t always what we would call “voice driven” fiction, but instead, I’d assert “idea driven” fiction.

Etgar KeretHowever, literary fiction (or “the mainstream”) is often voice-driven. The notion of an author/character voice sometimes is the story, particularly with short fiction. Etgar Keret’s story “Fatso” is a good example here. In the story (which is maybe two pages long) a man discovers his girlfriend transforms into an ugly fat man when the sun goes down every night. He describes their adventures briefly, and then the story ends, quickly. If Keret’s story were written by Harlan Ellison, or even Asimov, the shape shifting gender-crossing woman/fatso would likely be fleshed out a little more, if you can forgive the intended pun. A science fiction version of this story would linger more and explore through plot mechanics how everything is going down. Is this to say Asimov’s or or any other market for short science fiction and fantasy wouldn’t have published “Fatso” if Keret had sent it there initially, instead of a mainstream literary journal? No! In fact, I’m saying just the opposite; that it’s not quite clear anymore because while literary fiction has developed an appetite for more high concept writing, SFF has developed a taste for more voice-driven or “literary” work.

Now, it’s entirely possible this permeation has been going on with equal zeal for years and years and years, and because of my location in the space-time continuum, I’m only noticing a prevalence of cross-pollination now. I acknowledge this possibility by talking about all sorts of older books which started the whole genre in the mainstream trend: where would ghosts and time travel be without Dickens? Why does Vonnegut get to dance with both the literary elite and the science fiction people? Why should it matter and why do these categories exist at all? 

The answer  comes from Vonnegut himself. In his essay titled, “Science Fiction” he asserts  the “file drawers” for the genres only exist because the file drawers exist. Vonnegut:

But listen—about the editors and anthologists and publishers who keep the science-fiction field separate and alive: they are uniformly brilliant and sensitive and well-informed. They are among the precious few Americans in whose minds C.P. Snow’s two cultures sweetly intertwine. They publish so much bad stuff because good stuff is hard to find, and because they feel it is their duty to encourage any writer, no matter how frightful, who has guts enough to include technology in the human equation. Good for them. They want buxom images of the new reality.

Kurt VonnegutSo perhaps SFF has favored good ideas over good writing for a long time. That time, I believe, has passed, because good prose is prevalent on all sides of the genre divide. So much so, that the only thing keeping SFF from becoming totally “mainstream” is the existence of the genre itself. Pretty wild stuff, right? A writer on a science fiction blog advocating for the destruction of science fiction? That’s not what I’m saying. I like the club. I like the community, but I think writers of science fiction and fantasy owe it to the mainstream to check out what’s going on there from time to time, because in a far off distant day, we’re all going to be the same. Vonnegut called the community of SFF a “lodge” and praised it warmly. But he, like me, also thought all of this would change:

The lodge will dissolve. All lodges do, sooner or later. And more and more writers in “the mainstream,” as science-fiction people call the world outside the file-drawer, will include technology in their tales, will give it at least the respect due in a narrative to a wicked stepmother. 

I think this is happening. I think SFF writers are giving narrative respect to their aliens, and monsters in ways they haven’t before. (Not to say the good ones haven’t before!) China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Jo Walton are a few examples of currently active writers that come to mind, but certainly not the only ones. SFF has had good narrative and good writing forever, AND we’re better about getting excited about our writers and novels than any other readership.

Maybe that’s biggest reason of all that the mainstream is becoming genre and genre is becoming the mainstream. In a world where the arts are always an endangered species, we all recognize there are a limited number of readers. My goal in talking about mainstream literary books with genre elements is to encourage reader-sharing. Just because SFF readers are some of the smartest and best readers in the world doesn’t mean they can’t expand their horizons from time to time. 

To answer my friend’s question, we talk about this all of the time because the entire publishing world is living a real-life science fiction story, so those most poised to talk about what’s going on are the science fiction people. The conversation isn’t propelled by money, or fame, or trying to “slum it” while being highbrow at the same time... It’s because what crops up in science fiction eventually becomes mainstream. 

The conversation about genre in the mainstream exists the way it does now because we live in the future.

[You can read further examination of genre and mainstream literature by browsing the Genre in the Mainstream index]


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Ryan Viergutz
1. Ryan Viergutz
Bill Gibson is the go-to- guy for blurring the borders, writing stuff that's highly scifi but feels like it's happening right now. I hear Bruce Sterling is similar, though I haven't read all that much of his stuff yet. It's no coincidence they're two of the founding cyberpunks. :D

I like to keep an eye on the blurring of borders to keep open to all kinds of possibilities. Fringe is a damn good blur, being as much contemporary police/spy stuff as it is gloriously over the top weird science. The anime "Summer Wars" works in a similar vein.
Ryan Viergutz
2. GuruJ
When I read Pattern Recognition immediately after reading Neuromancer, it did my head because I kept on waiting for "the sci-fi" bits to kick in.

I got to the very end of the book before I realised that Gibson was playing a slightly different game. Anyone can write science-fiction for 100 years in the future; you'll never know if you were wrong. But writing about things that literally could happen tomorrow, now that takes balls.
Ryan Viergutz
3. Eugene R.
I have written previously about the desirability of "genre" in literature. I suspect that genres will continue to exist, even if particular styles/tropes/conventions mutate or disappear. I do not worry about the interpenetration of genre and mainstream, but I do worry about the notion that jettisoning genre is a sign of maturity, or growth, or respectability, or some such. Comparing other arts like music, we can see that genres often start out in less-than-honored status, as for example the critical opinion on jazz at its birth. But, over time, jazz has become fully respectable, while sharing its riffs with and borrowing from mainstream music ("standards"), without losing the sense of its own identity. Cannot science fiction and fantasy reach the same level of critical parity inside Literature that jazz has within Music?

My major fear over the jettisoning of genre is the loss of the communality that genre spawns or supports (chicken-and-egg phenomena, I believe). Where are the conventions in Mainstream that come close to any of the fen gatherings of Genre (sf, fantasy, mystery, romance, you name it)? Mainstream conventions are almost purely professional gatherings (aka "conferences"), while genre conventions are amateur rallies. And we all know that "amateur" etymologically comes from "lover". Lose the genre, lose the love.
Ryan Viergutz
4. John Kwok
Starting with "Pattern Recognition", William Gibson opted to use the "toolkit of science fiction" (as he refers to it) to explore the present, and he thought that 9/11 would be a good reference point to start (though he had started writing "Pattern Recognition" a few weeks prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.).

As for the phrase "genre in the mainstream", I personally would like to turn it on its head and suggest that mainstream should pay attention to genre, especially when there are many great writers of science fiction and fantasy who are ignored by mainstream critics and audiences. Among these I would include the following:

Michael Swanwick, one of our great short story writers whom I regard as one of SF & F's greatest literary stylists and a founding figure of cyberpunk.

John Shirley, another seminal figure of cyberpunk; his "A Song Called Youth" trilogy is one of the most important examples of cyberpunk science fiction.

Dan Simmons' "Hyperion Cantos" is the best example of literary space opera published since 1970 (with the exception of Iain M. Banks' ongoing "Culture" series).

Kathleen Ann Goonan, who has become one of the best writers of post-cyberpunk and alternate history SF, as well as another fine prose stylist in her own right.

China Mieville whom I regard as the best young writer of any genre, including mainstream, currently active from the United Kingdom (I don't think I need to say more, but to note that I regard his "Embassytown" as an instant classic of contemporary science fiction literature.).

Matt Ruff, who studied creative writing with legendary memoirist Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") at New York City's elite public science and mathematics oriented Stuyvesant High School, is probably best known for his multiple personaly disorder novel "Set This House in Order" and his recent Philip K. Dick homage "Bad Monkeys". IMHO he's written one of the great works of alternate history SF, "The Mirage", which deserves consideration for the Hugo and Nebula awards.

With the exception of China Mieville, all of the others I have cited are authors relatively unknown to mainstream audiences whose work should be read by them, especially since they are still producing work indicative of their high literary art.
Ryan Viergutz
5. All_Day_SCI-fi
I just recently discovered that article by Vonnegut. But one thing we need to get straight is that Fantasy and Science Fiction need to be distinguished. Beyond that the science fiction for writers and readers who actually care about the science. There is plenty of pseudo-science fiction and plenty of so called critics who don't care. Like Hyperion and HHGTTG are science fiction, Yeah Right! That is the trouble with the "Literary". They place too much emphasis on words and expect people to think certain ways because of words. The Laws of Physics do not care about words or mathematics either. The math is selected to conform to the physics the physcs does not conform to the math.

How much "good" science fiction seemed silly before the atomic bomb and the Moon landing? But now the computers of the 60s are antiquated junk. We are living in science fiction and have no choice but to decide what to do with it. But we behave as though fantasy is as repectable as science fiction because we aren't rigorous enough with the science. Kurt Vonnegut told us about people who could not understand refrigerators.
Ryan Viergutz
6. All_Day_SCI-fi
The problem with that article is that it is all talk about genre and writing and no comment about SCIENCE. We have computers everywhere and as a society we have to decide what to do with them especially in education, but a critic of science fiction can't mention science in a discuassion of science fiction. But Kurt Vonnegut had sense enough to talk about C.P. Snow's Two Cultures and people understanding how refrigerators worked in 1965. No smartphones back then. The smartphones are now more powerful than 1965 mainframes. What shall we do with them?

Read The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan. Don't waste your time on Neuromancer.
Ryan Viergutz
7. Rud Merriam
What I am finding frustrating is the mainstream authors or publishers who write on SF topics without having read the earlier works. That includes the so-called literaly authors like McCarthy with his "The Road". (And don't get me started on reviewers who praise such work without knowing the older works.) These books typically do not have the depth of understanding, say nothing new, and often bungle the facts that the SF works got correct.

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