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Opt Out Or Fight Back?

I don’t often rant, but here’s one that gets to me: When self-appointed cultural caretakers continue this simplistic and tedious snobbery about science fiction. You know what I mean. Critics who still think of science fiction in terms of the Star Trek of decades ago or make an immediate association with bad films and some of the drek that gets published in our genre.

Authors like John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Kurt Vonnegut (ah, farewell) who are “uneasy to think that they write fantasy” (Pullman’s words) or outright deny their work is anything of the sort. Afraid to be in the company of the best of our stylists–like George R. R. Martin, Carol Emshwiller, M. John Harrison, Ian McDonald, and many more–they engage in denial and window dressing, never understanding that they’re covering old territory that has been done as well or better in our genre. As a publishing strategy, assuming a mainstream mantle isn’t in itself reprehensible. It’s just the way they flee even the mention of  science fiction and fantasy that is so unnecessarily snobbish.

I’m not so naive that I don’t understand why our genre is often tarred with the same brush as pulp fiction, nor do I expect that sf topics have to be to everyone’s tastes. But the obsequious fawning over literary fiction as opposed to more popular fiction is another aspect of this discussion that fries me. Isabel Allende writes Zorro, the prequel to the story of the renegade fighter for justice. Lots of swashbuckling and romance. Fun, light, and commercial. I liked it. The Time Travelers Wife. Wonderful romance, with a marvelously complicated structure. Impressive, but what really, is there to chew on? Oh, but these are literature.

I do think Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake) and John Updike are superb stylists and I admit that sf/f doesn’t often approach that kind of density and subtlety. I like both writers, but I find few literary writers who can do what they do: tell a good story with extraordinary attention to style. If I have to choose, and it seems that I usually do, I value story over style. I can only manage to read three or four self-consciously arty and pretentiously obscure novels a year.

So what’s an sf/f writer to do? Fight back and continue to gently educate people about sf as literature, or turn our backs on the ghetto and start masquerading as mainstream? I hate to mention those in our field who are starting to do this, because some of them are my favorite writers. And I’m not sure they’re wrong. I give these writers respect in their marketing decisions, because they would never deny their science fiction and fantasy roots, but with their covers and blurbs, they’re spreading the net over a wider audience.

It can backfire. At Norwescon, I heard Duane Wilkins of University Book Store in Seattle, talk about how this strategy–at least in shelving at bookstores–can separate you from the very readers who want to find you.

So the topic has subtle shades to it. But on the extremes of the argument, these issues still get my hackles up.

Thanks to Kris Rusch for the following article that demonstrates my point perfectly: Writers, Directors, Fear Sci Fi Label Like an Attack From Mars.


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