Defining Science Fiction

There has long been a battle, an attitude, a snobbery in the writing world where literary or mainstream fiction is real writing, and all that “genre” fiction is done by hacks and of little merit in the tales of the world. Anyone who writes in a genre knows this and has felt it. But what is a genre? It is the categorizing of a novel or story by some of its strongest elements.

No longer in favor but once very popular were westerns. They obviously took place in a time of the Wild West where cowboys and indians ran amok and pioneers struggled to survive while men maddened by gold-rush fever lived little better than animals. Romances are tales about love and obstacles to happiness, and almost always have the predictable ending of the man and woman (or man and man, woman and woman) finding each other. But the tales of how they get there are varied. Harlequin books has one of the most steady sell-throughs of any publisher. Publishing romances is a good business.

Erotica is obviously taking content into a more sensual or erotic tone. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, have elements integral to the story and were those elements removed the story wouldn’t hold up. Horror also fell into disfavor and is better known as dark fantasy these days. Still, there are blends of tales that aren’t all one thing. There are stories that are erotic and science fiction, western romances, literary fantasy, magic realism and politics (actually that one is a typical mix), and then there are literary, erotic, science fiction tales.

I wrote one story, “Hold Back the Night,” which I called my literary, lesbian, erotic vampire story. Vampire was never mentioned in the tale and it dealt with the wife burnings that happen in India. But labeling fiction is what we do; we the readers, we the writers and we the publishers. Publishers choose genres so that they can market to a specific demographic mindset. We’ll sell more of these books if we make it look like a cookbook or a romance and market to those people specifically interested in this. Publishers hate books that don’t fit in the neat categories.

Most of all they want to market books in mainstream, literary fiction because it is the largest readership and therefore the biggest sales. Writers of course would love the same. Readers can be a bit like sheept and think that if they only like a mystery book, they’ll never look in the romance section, but then there are thousands of books to look through so it can be difficult to find them. So, in mainstream, the more sales the more money, and the more awards available than in a specified category. A book that can’t fit into a category, or a story, may not be bought for a long time. I have a story that is not quite fantasy, and not quite mainstream and will circulate for a long time because it falls into the cracks.

But genres cause their own problems and as we see, narrow the readership. Many stories are not all of one shade. So Margaret Atwood, multi-award winner, always says she doesn’t write science fiction, yet some of her books extrapolate into a near future and ask what if. Seems pretty science fiction to me, many other writers, and readers. Yet she denies. Ursula Le Guin, multi-award winner writer of SF disagrees with Atwood’s view.

Le Guin gives an intriguing review of The Year of the Flood, which takes place after the events in Oryx and Crake. Both of these books are nearish future, with a crumbling of society, dystopian novels, because that’s what Atwood does best. But yet, she, like many of the literati, those who hold themselves above mere genre writers, says it’s not science fiction. And I must ask, what’s she afraid of, or is her viewpoint so narrow that in fact she only sees science fiction as squids in space?

Le Guin and Atwood are giants in their own rights, both award-winning authors whose stories span boundaries in some ways. Speculative fiction (an all-encompassing term for horror, fantasy, science fiction and really, literary fiction as well) doesn’t have to be shallow and it often looks at worlds and attitudes and how people change in regards to the pressures of life, species, invasion, change and technology–very valid commentary into our humanity, or inhumanity. So perhaps Atwood needs to accept that she has a narrow viewpoint of SF, get down from the pedestal and just accept that she writes it, sometimes. It’s not like it will hurt her rep, but the adamant head in the sand denial still doesn’t change that she writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it. Maybe she just hates the labels and codifying of writing.

I have not read The Year of the Flood, though I did read Oryx and Crake and where I felt it was a long setup for the story that wasn’t in the book, maybe Year is that story. And maybe not. For a very thought-provoking review by Ursula Le Guin of Atwood’s book, click on the link and be your own judge. And read the book, or read Le Guin’s books and see if the literary writer outweighs the SF writer. In the end, do you think Atwood writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it?

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood

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