Thursday, February 05, 2009

Don't Get Me Wrong, Some of My Best Fiction is Science!

David Barnett present a good article (with a great title) about one of my personal bete-noirs: science fiction that refuses to be labeled so.

This annoyed me when Philip K. Dick moved from the Science Fiction section to the Fiction section at the store, 'cause he had "moved into the literary cannon", as my teacher at the time said. I call foul. His work is, was, and will always be science fiction - so why does he get "elevated" to the Fiction aisle, while Harlan Ellison stays in the Science Fiction section? (Did it have more to do with the movie "Minority Report" coming out at the time?)

What puts Oryx and Crake in Fiction? Is Margaret Atwood better than Octavia Butler? Puh-leeze.

Science Fiction, or SF, gets a bad rap because of it's hokey genre associations. Mystery novels, however, don't attract the same disrespect. You can write genre mystery or literary mystery, and your work will be in the mystery aisle with no one pooh-poohing it either way. But if you happen to have a science fiction slant to your novel, then your publisher will take great pains to keep it quarantined from the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. It's just snobbery and makes me grumpy. (As I mentioned a few posts ago, Jonathan Lethem's book was SF marketed as "literary" and still crap.)

I'd be quite happy to do away with most of the categories in the bookstore starting with "Books for Her" tables and "African-American" shelves. I don't like ghettos for people or for the written word.

Spider Robinson wrote an article once delineating between what he writes, "science fiction", and that other, silly genre stuff, "sci-fi". To me, it was a meaningless distinction. (Sorry, I can't find it to post.) IMO, the cream will rise to the top no matter what you call it, and people will gravitate to whatever stories they want in the moment. You could put Anna Karenina in the Romance section and no one's gonna mistake it for The Greek Tycoon's Virgin Wife!

There is a lot of good science fiction out there - Heinlein, Willis, Butler, Robinson, Varley, Hopkinson, and Ellison are just a few. So for "mainstream" authors to write science fiction and then shirk the label does a disservice to all the great SF out there. Why are we still at the not that there's anything wrong with that stage? If, as an author, writing SF is an aberration for you, it would be much classier to say, "There's a lot of excellent science fiction out there, and I'm proud of the company my book is in".

What do you think? Does it matter to you if it's called science fiction, sci-fi, or speculative fiction? If you had to get your Murakami fix from the SF section, would you be caught dead there? What about vampire fiction - is it going to demand its own section in the basement?


Marla said...

I don't understand the distinction either. Being in visual arts, I spent a lot of my youth discussing What Is Art, and whether this-or-that work was Art or mere Illustration. I don't worry about categorizations like that anymore: it is what it is, regardless of what it's called. (Which is a whole nother giant subject, the way the media labels everything for us so that we don't even bother to think about it for two seconds ourselves.)

Don't get me started.

Some of my favorite books - the ones I've read a dozen times - are genre. Right off the bat I think of Time for the Stars (Heinlein); The Reluctant Widow (Heyer); The Saracen Blade (Yerby); The Cowboy and the Cossack (Huffaker); The Deep Blue Goodbye (MacDonald). These are books that have had an effect on my life, changed my attitudes and beliefs. Which hasn't been the case with most "literary" fiction.

As with visual art, accessibility is important, and there's nothing shameful about being able to reach more people in a more understandable manner.

And as always, a few decades puts a patina of respectability on almost anything. It always cracks me up the way the most conservative people love impressionism, and despise non-figurative art as being junk. The Impressionists were the radicals of their day, and I'm pretty sure these same people wouldn't care for them if they were living in 1890!

JuliaMazal said...

So true, Marla!

(Re: labels - reminds me that Bjork rejected Lilith Fair, 'cause she didn't feel part of "women's music", just "music". Though I understand what Lilith Fair was set up to address, too.)

And, hey, if you don't get a patina of respectability, you can sometimes get "ironic hipster cred" - I'm lookin' at you, velvet elvis painting.