Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings? Page back one for a look at the question of authorial denial. Then join me and Alan as we try to figure out precisely what are Science Fiction and Fantasy.
ALAN: Whenever two or more SF and Fantasy fans gather together, sooner or later they will try and define the meaning of the term.
JANE: “The” term! Heck, even that can’t be agreed on. Sci-Fi is the term most non-SF/F readers use, but most hard core fans shrink from it. My understanding is that Sci-Fi was coined by Forry Ackerman to sound like the then trendy “Hi-Fi.”
Academics tend to refer to SF/F as “speculative fiction.” Why? I guess because it sounds more “grown up.”
ALAN: This obsession with nit-picking generally means that the genre is divided and subdivided into ever finer categories – hard SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, paranormal romance, etc. – whose main purpose seems to be to allow readers to define their own tastes: “Oh, I never read that particular genre; I don’t like it at all.”
JANE: This is a real problem for writers, especially for writers who don’t always write exactly the same type of book over and over. Readers don’t know how to define your work.
I try not to fall into the same trap as a reader, but I’ll raise my hand and say “Guilty as charged!”
I’m a huge admirer of Patricia McKillip’s work. One day, going down the library shelves, I came across a book called Fool’s Run. It was clearly SF. I balked. McKillip writes Fantasy: strange, wonderful, oddly evocative fantasy that runs on its own peculiar internal logic. She couldn’t write SF.
Well, I was just at a point in my own career where I was facing people trying to limit me, so I picked up Fool’s Run. It is now one of my absolutely favorite McKillip novels. Brilliant and insane.
ALAN: I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but I strongly suspect that I’m being very unfair. No matter how carefully you try and define a genre, there are always edge cases that don’t fit comfortably and quite often the edge cases are where the most interesting writing is taking place. It’s the straight down the middle of the road stories that fit a genre definition one hundred percent which tend to be unadventurous and dull.
JANE: I feel that way, too. I know a few writers who basically try to hop on what they think is the Hot Trend. Their books always lack that special “something” that made that particular sub-category hot.
ALAN: I once heard the author Gene Wolfe say something very interesting. This is a paraphrase, but it captures the essence:
“I don’t know what I write – to me it’s just stuff. When I’ve finished it, I send it off to my publisher and they tell me what category it fits in. I never know what it is until they tell me. To me it’s just stuff.”
Which makes me wonder – just how much is this categorisation a marketing ploy rather than a real description of a literary type?
JANE: A lot. Right now Barnes and Noble (a major book selling chain) is subdividing YA down to ridiculous extremes. I think this is meant to help hapless adult buyers find the precise type of book what Little Jenny or Johnny are reading right now. As if Jenny or Johnny are that limited!
I noted these divisions when I was in a B&N back in October.
First there were three general divisions: New, “Top Teen Picks,” and Teen.
Under these there were – and I am NOT kidding – more subdivisions, including the expected Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror. In honor of Halloween (at least I hope and pray that was why they had this), there was “Best of Undead.” There were also “Epic Quests,” “Fantasy Adventure” (I guess this differed from Fantasy without an Adventure), and finally an entire section devoted to “Teen Paranormal Romance.”
Finally, there was Teen Non-Fiction – the first four shelves of which were all fiction, which I fear may lead to great confusion.
ALAN: They missed out Teenage Angst! Goodness, gracious me…
JANE: I believe that the tendency to market by subdivision is fed by those “If you liked” things that pop up on book or music buying websites.
Sometimes the pushing of one sub-category is relentless. A friend of mine bought a couple Brian Eno albums as a gift. Now, every time she logs on she gets offered everything that Brian Eno ever worked on.
ALAN: We don’t have Barnes and Noble in this part of the world and I don’t think this trend has arrived here (yet). But if it ever does, perhaps we will eventually end up with a huge number of extremely well defined categories, each of which contains one, and only one, book. That way we’ll all know exactly what we are buying. So much so, in fact, that we won’t have to go through the hassle of reading the book after we’ve bought it. We’ll know exactly what happens in the story because of the category it’s in!
Perhaps we’ll stop reading books completely and then we’ll start having conversations with our friends along the lines of: “Hey! I read this really neat category definition the other day. I’m sure you’d like it…”
JANE: Silly! Still, sub-categories can be useful – especially as ways to talk about a book to someone else. However, this only works if everyone understands what the category means. This gives me an idea… But let’s hold it for next time.