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Defining Our Beloved Genre

or How I Stopped Worrying
and Learned to Love the Label

by Tamara Sheehan

The question ‘what is genre?’ is simple and, in the end, it’s also insignificant: it’s impossible to define genre and, as a writer, it’s impossible to avoid being defined by it.

Having come to writing science fiction and fantasy (SFF) naturally rather than academically, I was startled to find discussions of genre so important to the discipline and then to realize that every one of my beliefs about the place of Our Beloved Genre (as Patrick Neilsen Hayden is wont to call it) in the literary hierarchy (read: marginalized, embattled) are not only precipitated by but also a product of my own attitudes.

Suggesting that the reason SFF writers find themselves ghettoized and combative is that we prefer, and indeed construct, a sort of nerdy exclusivity (in spite of all evidence of popular appeal), is unlikely to win any friends at the convention. Still, it’s exactly what we do. SFF authors complain bitterly that SFF combines the ‘profoundly cosmic with the intensely human’ and those works have value beyond escapism. Works of fantasy and science fiction, we argue, should not be regarded as the fluff of literature and ignored.

Let’s be honest: It’s hard to feel like a professional when someone at a party sums up your job as a big game of “let’s pretend,” partly because it infantilizes what we do and partly because being professionally estranged, as Tom Bissell notes, is damn hard work. SFF writers, like all writers, are aware that writing is seen as a pretty cushy gig.

We want and crave legitimacy, and yet we’re aware that part of the value of SFF work is the consideration of flights of fancy, entertaining the impossible or delving into the straight-up weird.

China Mieville summarized this when he pointed out the tension between a desire to be able to quantify and the desire for wonder, a fundamental tension in SFF writing. As he says, in SFF, if you don’t care for thematics or for symbolism, there are plenty of cool monsters and fight scenes.

Of course monsters and literature are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the immediate response to works of fiction not obviously or deeply genric SFF works but inclusive of SFF tropes, is often one of bafflement.

Take for example Michael Knight’s review of Kelly Link’s book Magic for Beginners, published in the New York Times in 2005, which left some SFF writers shaking their heads. Knight’s immediate response when presented with a zombie in a book he was enjoying was to lean heavy on the symbolism of the zombie, as if the symbolic value of the living dead would cover up the fact that a zombie is a walking corpse that wants to eat your brains.

By trying to force an element of fantasy into an otherwise totally rational / familiar / mundane world, Knight missed the point: 1) that zombies are modern and powerful mythological icons and 2) that sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

At this point we might want to consider why Mr. Knight seemed to be afraid of manifestly enjoying anything that was vaguely fantastical and have a look at the relationship between the avant-garde and the popular. As a rule, coolness has an inverse relationship with popularity. The more popular a thing becomes, the less exclusive, artistic, avant-garde, etc., it becomes.

Work though we do to marginalize ourselves (in Matthew Cheney’s article I counted five marginalizing terms (geek, nerd, etc.) before the end of the first page, all of them used as if they were positive rather than pejorative), the fact of the matter is Tor Books is massive, Orb has a substantial and healthy backlist and is moving into the North American market like an iceberg into a shipping lane, and SFF sales far outstrip the sales of ‘literary’ books. SFF is popular. You can tell because SFF sells.

Having faced up to that, we might wonder a) what’s wrong with being popular if you can make a living at it? and b) why do SFF writers feel both a powerful need for external validation and an equally strong desire to ghettoize themselves in order to have some sort of sense of exclusivity?

In general, SFF books are the Jani of the literary world. They can be (and are) both fluff and sociopolitical commentary. Their accessibility (long print runs, large houses, saturation distribution), makes them a profound cultural influence, and their complex subject matter renders them something more than allegory.

To beat the podium with a copy of Old Man’s War and demand that the literary world accept SFF as literature seems to utterly miss the point: SFF has readership, and the readers know what they’re reading has value.

It’s funny to be so wrapped up with notions of the value and exclusivity of genre when we can’t even define science fiction and fantasy as genres. China Mieville’s Iron Council is a fantasy science fiction western adventure tale, and Sussanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mister Norell is a science fiction alternative history fantasy book.

Genre is fluid: it may contain any number of themes or settings normally found in other genres and is therefore about as dependable as a method of demarcating the quality, social value and importance of a book as a critic with dementia.

If genre is, by its nature, inclusive rather than exclusive, why this preoccupation with SFF’s place in the genre hierarchy of social value? And who decides what goes where in that hierarchy anyway?

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, owes a considerable and somewhat unrecognized debt to the dystopic science fiction that came before it, but it’s a debt that is irrevocable, because the author has refused to acknowledge that the work stands inside the SFF boundary. The reason Atwood can do this (much to the chagrin of the SFF world) is because when it comes to genre, what’s actually in the text is secondary to the allegiances of the author.

Genre is, it seems, far less about the text of a book, and more about the cover art; the publisher who handles it; the place it takes on the book store shelves; and, crucially, what the author says in interviews and at conventions. Scorn and derision may have been heaped upon Margaret Atwood, but The Handmaid’s Tale can still be found with her other books under “Literature” in the book store.

When Atwood made a point of saying she did not write science fiction, she was wasting her own time. When the book was shelved under literature, her position was clear: There would be no acknowledged debt to dystopic science fiction and no allegiance to the genre.

Genre is primarily a marketer’s tool (people buy books that remind them of other books they’ve liked); a way of narrowing down possible candidates (TOR has no interest in bog-standard detective books); and it functions to create community and exclusivity. It is flexible. It defines writers and is in turn defined by them. It demarcates similarities between books, but by no means neatly defines the content of the text. Outside the arcana and politics of writing, or finding a book in the bookstore, genre really, substantially, doesn’t matter.

Except that it does. A lot.

Copyright © 2007 by Tamara Sheehan

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