posted by Karen Burnham at Monday 14 February 2011 @ 12:01 am BST
Once again I turned to our Roundtable panelists with a question:
A couple of weeks ago, our own Jonathan Strahan was so bold as to voice his dislike of the term ‘speculative fiction’ on his Coode St. podcast. Reactions came fast and furious, from Galactic Suburbia, Cheryl Morgan and Cat Valente–and probably others. It seems that this is a topic everyone has an opinion about. How do you like your genre labels? Fantasy vs. science fiction vs horror? One spec-fic umbrella to rule them all?
I could also see this conversation branching out to other critical terms: for instance, how finely do we need to label our genres? Genre vs. sub-genre vs. sub-sub-genre… where does the madness end? How much do labels matter when we read and write the fiction we enjoy?
And once again they took it in much more interesting directions. Because many of the comments are short, I’ve broken the whole thing into fewer pages this time. If you want to view the whole thing, go to this page, look for the drop-down menu at the top, and select the last option, “View All.” [Quick note: I’ve been using the WordPress plugin Multipage Toolkit for this, but I’m not terribly happy with it. If anyone can point me towards a different plugin to handle multi-page posts, I’d appreciate it. Thanks!]
In her great BBC interview recently Ursula Le Guin said that genre was a convenience for publishers and readers and meant very little to writers. That’s true for me. I’d like to know how everybody else feels.
As a writer, when I sit down to work on a novel or short story, I am not thinking primarily about genre. Or about whether to label it, in my mind, as science fiction, fantasy, or spec fic. Yet as I engage with elements of the story, both consciously and unconsciously, those questions are part of the mix. If, as a writer, you are at all self-aware, they have to be. But they are not primary to my process.
As a reviewer and critic, however, those questions are very much at the forefront of my approach, and I think appropriately. I do not think that genre distinctions, for example, are merely a convenience for publishers. I think they actually do exist. Though certainly publishers have made use of them, and even appropriated them, so that the terms are less critically meaningful today than they once were. Or are in need of retrenchment, redefinition. But they are still meaningful. I don’t see how any useful criticism can be written about anything that doesn’t attempt to classify its components, to place it into a framework, to identify differences and similarities within a larger body of work — in our field, it’s what the editors of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction have termed “the sf megatext.”
On a more personal level, I have mixed feelings about the terms “speculative fiction” and its chirpy diminutive, “specfic.” I’ve used them. I understand where they come from. But there’s a defensiveness about them that bugs me. Who, after all, are these euphemisms really aimed at? A part of me always feels, fuck it, let’s just call it all scifi. Embrace it, be proud of it, own it. “We created it, let’s take it over,” as Patti Smith once said.