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.
However, 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 Tor.com 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.
So 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.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com