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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

 




 


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Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
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Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
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Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
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Mark R. Kelly
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Russell Letson
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Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
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Cat Rambo
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Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
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Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre

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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!]

Cecelia Holland

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.

Paul Witcover

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.

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Comments

Pingback from Tweets that mention Locus Roundtable » Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre — Topsy.com
Time February 14, 2011 at 12:33 am

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Charles Tan, fabiofernandes and Locus Magazine, Karen Burnham. Karen Burnham said: New Locus Roundtable! A *very* lively discussion on "Writing Within and Without Genre." http://bit.ly/i0KyxK [...]

Pingback from Locus Roundtable: Writing Within Genre
Time February 14, 2011 at 5:18 am

[...] 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: [...]

Pingback from Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre
Time February 14, 2011 at 11:04 am

[...] 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: [...]

Comment from JEG
Time February 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm

A stimulating discussion. I’m most in agreement with John Kessel, which may be understandable. What hasn’t been discussed here, however, is that identifying the genre is essential for a reader if he/she is to read it properly: each genre (and the original use of the term applied very broadly to fiction, drama, poetry, etc., and SF, Western, Detective,..are sub-genres at best, or categories) has its own reading protocols and if the reader applies the wrong protocols the reading goes awry. See Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Case.” So a writer who wants a reader to arrive at a particular reading response can hardly avoid dealing with a reader’s expectations.

Pingback from Science fiction’s future-flinch | Velcro City Tourist Board
Time February 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

[...] of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre taxonomy. You can also read my very own “origin story” about how I found my way into the scene [...]

Comment from Gregory Frost
Time February 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

As a writer (vs. the reviewer/critic that Paul W. distinguishes) I think any time I hit upon an idea for a story, that idea arrives with suggestions of the genre territory it’ll occupy fully intact. What I can and can’t do with it is dependent, among other things, upon the scope of my familiarity with that territory–the better handle I have on it, the more knowledgeable I am about what’s been done already, the more things I can do, and the more things I can upend. (See Terry’s McMurtry quote.) I suppose I stand between Mssrs. Witcover and Kessel in that I think I’m very conscious of the genre the story is aiming at, but that this pointed direction came already embedded within/implied by the idea. I’m not spending much time ruminating upon it. To me that’s all the more reason to be aware of the things that aren’t of that territory, because they offer elements I might want to draw upon that would make the story different, richer, unique. Like hauling some Franz Kafka or Bruno Schulz into my very in-genre fantasy story. And the debate will rage on anyway as to whether the resultant story belongs in “this” category or “that” category. Which is all just fine by me.

Comment from Dolly
Time February 17, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I don’t like the term “Speculative Fiction” – it sounds so undecided, like we have no idea what we are writing or reading. However, I don’t have any problem with genre labels. I read in a variety of genres, and I don’t feel there is anything wrong in dividing a story in Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror etc. When I am writing, I know what genre I am writing. It’s not a conscious decision to write in particular genre, but each story, just happens to be the right one for one genre more than all the rest.

Comment from Sam M-B
Time February 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm

It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

http://suvudu.com/2010/03/when-the-pizza-wakes-ending-the-genre-vs-literary-fiction-battle-once-and-for-all-by-robert-v-s-redick.html

Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

Comment from Sam M-B
Time February 18, 2011 at 12:56 am

The “what to call this whole umbrella of genre fiction” went a bit outside of the original question, but I found that very interesting.

Recently, Orson Scott Card, in an interview with John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley on io9′s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, made the case that fantasy is now properly a subset of science fiction, because modern fantasists are just as rigorous in their world-building:

http://io9.com/#!5746150/orson-scott-card-writes-humans-in-episode-29-of-the-geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy

And even more recently, Scalzi says: To engage in further nitpicking, everything you can possibly label as “science fiction” is in fact just a subset of a larger genre, which is correctly called “fantasy.” This is because science fiction — along with supernatural horror, alternate history, superhero lit, and the elves-and-orcs swashbuckling typically labeled “fantasy” — is fundamentally fantastic. Which is to say, it involves imaginative conceptualizing, does not restrain itself according what is currently known, and speculates about the nature of worlds and conditions that do not exist in reality. It may gall science-fiction fans to think of their genre as a subset of fantasy, but it is, so calling a film “science fantasy” is in most ways redundant.

http://www.filmcritic.com/features/2011/02/science-fiction-vs-science-fantasy/

It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

http://suvudu.com/2010/03/when-the-pizza-wakes-ending-the-genre-vs-literary-fiction-battle-once-and-for-all-by-robert-v-s-redick.html

Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

So I agree with Cheryl Morgan: AAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!

I do like that the banner ad I see when visiting the roundtable is for Expanded Horizons: speculative fiction for the rest of us.

Comment from Nick Mamatas
Time February 18, 2011 at 1:18 am

Just a quote note: I didn’t complain that Horton said I wrote slipstream, I complained that there was no such thing as slipstream. So far as I can tell, it really means stuff that obviously betrays influences other than the textual hardcore of SF or fantasy influences, which one would hope wouldn’t need another whole subgenre for itself. (Writers should read far more widely than they write, even if they write in several genre traditions.)

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