Why SF is not genre

Originally written in response to the SF Signal Mind-meld question: What non-genre books have influenced you in some way?

I’m fascinated to see this issue discussed at the moment. If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature. And this is caused in great part by the misapprehension of SF as ‘genre’. Genre is part of Speculative Fiction, just as it is part of all literature, and just as all literature draws in some way from one genre or another. Some SF is overtly ‘generic’ (which generally makes it uninteresting to me), much other SF uses genre creatively (much more interesting) and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing. Genre is something that good writers make use of, but don’t let themselves be trapped by. Similarly, SF presents writers with a set of tools. Like any specialised toolkit it fulfills certain functions. Skillful writers pick up the right tools for the right job, rather than limiting themselves to only the tools they are familiar with.

My own reading has always mixed SF with all other kinds of literature from as early as I can remember, so these books that have influenced me are drawn from across the whole history of my reading:

Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto – as a teenager this short story collection was one of my first glimpses of how fiction can deliver insight in to very normal, everyday existence. I read it at least a dozen times in the space of a year or so. Yoshimoto claims it was written whilst listening to Nirvana, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my teenage years.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck wants you to know that the events of ordinary life are the very stuff of drama. And that it is filled with both pain and unexpected kinds of healing. His theme is how the archetypal patterns of our oldest stories, in this case the biblical Caine and Abel, repeat through the generations in the lives of us all. Read simply as fiction it is a powerful story, but it becomes something more when you start to look at how these dramatic archetypes repeat in your own life.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – The British state education system has ruined the greatest English language writer for most of his latter day countrymen. I studied Hamlet three times at school, but it was only when I started reading Shakespeare myself as a young writer that I really began to see why his work has endured. Hamlet is about the worst of human existence, the structures of power and control, ego and ambition, that make it impossible for people to love or trust one another. There is no hero in Hamlet, all the characters are equally corrupt, and in the end everyone dies. The perfect tragedy, that plays out day in and day out in the places of power around the world.

Underworld by Don Delilo – most of this generation of Great White Male novelists, British and American, are to my mind chronically overrated. Amis, McEwan, Roth, Updike. The only way I can rationalise the acclaim these authors and their peers receive is to believe that at some point literary readers fell in to a kind of self-hate, and like abused spouses are unable to escape the bilious behaviour poured on them by these writers. Delilo is this generation of writers saving grace. Underworld is his masterpiece. I’m not going to bother describing it…go and read it and White Noise and a few others by DeLilo, and put McEwan et. al. in the rubbish and forget about them.

Runaway by Alice Munro – I discovered Munro this year, and read this entire collection in two days. By the end I felt like the top of my head had been taken off and my brain rewired by someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Munro’s writing is extremely cruel, because it continually returns to the ways people fail themselves, and act as the unconscious villains in their own lives. It’s very difficult to read her without noticing the hundreds of ways, large and small, we do these things to ourselves.

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11 thoughts on “Why SF is not genre”

  1. “If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature.”

    I totally disagree with this statement. What I’ve seen happening is that SFF has embraced the term genre, as a good thing – as opposed to the literary snobs who seem to think “genre” is a synonym for “not worthy of being literature”.
    Of course everything written is literature, from romance to science fiction to lit.fic. And everything belongs to a genre. You could argue that genres are marketing labels and nothing more, but that only becomes meaningful if you consistently call what most people call “Literature” lit.fic.

    “[…]and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing.”

    This is a typical statement from lit.fic. fans. I assume you are one, since you only list lit.fic. in your influences. What this statement says is that SFF is bad, and if it is good it is not SFF. -That may not be what you meant by it, but it is the typical lit.fic. argument for redefining what they consider to be good as not SFF.
    And that is why SFF want to distance itself, not from the rest of literature, but from the snobs who refuse to admit they think anything other than lit.fic. is good. And because of that redefine anything good in SFF (or any other genre) as lit.fic., or “Literature” as they call it.

    The problem is not genre distinctions (which I think most people find helpful). It is lit.fic. refusing to admit that it is a genre.

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    1. @weirdmage – No, I like lots of SF. This was an opportunity to talk specifically about non-SF influences.

      And you are right, genres are marketing categories. It’s not healthy to define a creative activity by its marketing categories. Genre is an important part of SF. But only a part. Defining SF as ‘genre’ is really limiting.

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      1. I don’t think genre is limiting. And that is really my point, genre is only limiting if you buy into the “genre is bad” narrative. If you on the other hand look at the quality of a book as something that is removed from its genre distinction, then it does not matter what its genre is. A good book is a good book, (and a bad book is a bad book,) whether it is SFF, western, romance, crime or lit.fic.

        And I think that is what we should strive to achieve. Look at the book for what it is, and use the genre distinction as added information.

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      2. Then I think we agree. I’m not saying genre is bad at all. Quite the opposite, I’m saying its useful. But it is not the defining factor of SF, any more than it is of lit.fic. Hence the rhetoric that defines SF as ‘genre’ is frustrating and limiting.

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  2. In one article you listed two of my absolutely favorite works. “East of Eden” and “Underworld”. Both of those books exist on a different plane. Genre simply cannot contain them. By the way, you’re right about the other stuff. SF is a set of tools not rules. I tend to go for the stuff that has elements of other genres thrown in: Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”, the “Dune” books (Frank not Brian), pretty much everything by Philip K. Dick, Robert Charles Wilson’s novels, etc. The list goes on.

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    1. Hi Chuck, thanks for commenting. Yes, I’m similar, I like SF that is strong all around as literature. The only one of your writers I’m yet to read is Robert Charles Wilson. Have to push him up my ‘must read’ pile. Where is a good place to start?

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  3. “Spin” is the best place to start with Robert Charles Wilson. It’s the first in a trilogy. The second book being “Axis”. “Vortex” will come out later this year. “Chronoliths” is fantastic as well.

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  4. I don’t understand how you can say “SF is not genre”. Maybe I’m missing something here (it is early and little sleep last night) but: SF seems to me to fit the formal definition of the word – a category of art where you find shared elements of form or content and/or etc.

    We’ve seen regular complaints and explanations centering on the concept that there are now so many assumptions made in SF writing that it is difficult for the uninitiated to be able to enter the genre (aficionados know all about the 3/4 laws of robotics, or the implications of FTL travel, etc.)

    “Law books” would be a “genre” of non-fiction under the definition and they share some of the same problems for new readers – centuries of prior knowledge and writings that inform current works.

    So far as the ghettoization issue? I applaud it. In fact, I see SF as a kind of ‘super-genre’, as rock is a ‘super-genre’ of musical forms. It has the breadth and elasticity to accommodate all other forms and genres within its own framework. BUT. You need to be familiar with it and practiced with it in order to pull that off successfully. Lit Fic authors often try (Atwood for example), but all they end up doing is covering ground that’s already been well-turned by ‘true’ SF authors. I prefer to see SF remain sacrosanct, practiced by those who know what it is and not tread upon by fakers.

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    1. Hi Steve, thanks for commenting. I see all the elements of your argument represented frequently. They are the ‘conventional wisdom’, at least within genre. I’ve argued them myself. But they are wrong.

      The question I’m really interested in is what makes great writing. And drawing artificial boundaries between LitFic / SF, arguing endlessly about genres etc, does not great writing make. It’s fine for people to obsess over genre definitions, I’m just not interested in work that is a product of those discussions. Which means I’m not interested in 95% of what is published as SF. That’s fine, there is enough of interest in the other 5% to keep me reading.

      One thing I will say is that without exception, all the SF writers I admire read very broadly outside SF. Which leads me to the conclusion that writers and readers who never look beyond SF are severely limiting themselves. So if SF is a genre, it’s only the part of it that makes itself generic by not thinking more broadly.

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  5. @Damien

    I think I understand your point. That any story that is limited because it hasto fit into a genre is suffering from being genre. And I agree with that. If an author does not include something because it doesn’t fit the genre he/she is writing, it will make the book less than it could be.

    What I don’t understand is why you go after SF(F). I’ll quote you here:

    “One thing I will say is that without exception, all the SF writers I admire read very broadly outside SF.”

    The genre that clearly suffer the most from this is lit.fic. I’ve seen several lit.fic. books that are hailed as innovative (“slipstream”) that are so full of genre clichés that the stories they tell went “out of fashion” in SF(F) decades ago. And there is no doubt when reading lit.fic. critiques that they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about when it comes to the originality of books that use elements from other genres. If you want to discuss genre’s limitations, why not go after the genre that suffer the most from it, and that is clearly the most closed and narrow-minded, i.e. lit.fic.?

    I do disagree with you that SF(F) is not genre. As I wrote earlier genre is basically additional product information (in this case the product is books).

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    1. Yep, there is plenty of bad genre LitFic out there. But there is also brilliant, heart rending, mind bending stuff published as LitFic. As a reader I want it all, and as a writer I want to learn from it all. Where genre is useful, use it. But let’s get better at tossing it away when it has had it’s day.

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