When I say I’m a genre nerd, I don’t just mean I love reading, writing and obsessing over genre fiction. Of course I love all those things, I’m a Geek Girl from way back. But I also mean I love the concept of genre, the mutations of its meaning, the academic study of it, and, you may have noticed, the debates surrounding it.
As one who enjoys a good LitFic v SpecFic cage match, it got me thinking about the framing of these kind of debates. I’m drawn to these genre war arguments because, firstly, I love genre fic, especially speculative fiction in all its forms. But I also equally love academic literary studies steeped in dense literary and cultural theory, and have long been a student of creative writing.
So between studying the literary canon, and studying the craft of writing, and reading/writing genres often denigrated, at least by those with closed-gatekeeper views of what ‘quality writing’ actually is, I usually come at these debates as a defender of genre fiction. I like to rail against genre’s position as a perceived outsider to an accepted literary canon. Or in other words, if I like a good scary horror tale, don’t you judge me, you LitFic types. Not unless you’re prepared to judge Mary Shelley and Henry James and Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison too, because as has been recently pointed out by Grady Hendrix over at Tor, Beloved is a horror novel in every single sense, except for its lack of traditional horror audience.
Now, the title of Fallon’s piece, “Why Does Everyone Hate SpecFic?” does its job and pulls in interested parties like myself to read the full article. Yet when asking questions like that, when framing the debate in such a way, Fallon – and myself, and any others who take a similar approach in defending the right of genre to be taken seriously along side “real literature” – is really just shoring up the literary hierarchy we’re supposedly wanting to dismantle.
“Everybody” does not hate Speculative Fiction, for starters. Going by sheer sales numbers, I’d hazard the love for speculative fiction well eclipses the hate for it in rather significant numbers. Damien Walter in the Guardian isn’t the only one to have noted the market for high end literature isn’t exactly rolling in cash and that it’s the mass genres where people are buying, well, in mass. It’s the GRRM’s, the Stephen King’s, the Dan Brown’s, the EL James’s, the Tolkein’s, the Rowling’s who are beloved by huge audiences willing to shell out lots of dosh to buy what they love.
And sure, David Foster Wallace sold a bunch too, back in the day, but can anybody outside the narrow confines of the literary establishment actually name more than one of his books? Oh, and by the way, Infinite Jest well and truly qualifies as speculative fiction.
Far be it from me to make spurious arguments by cherry picking examples, but isn’t one of the reasons SpecFic and other popular genres have long been denigrated is due to their commercial nature and mass audience appeal? That was at the heart of the whole mass culture/high culture debate in academic circles which I remember pouring over in my uni days. (Hmmm, and wasn’t that academic debate concluded when I did my highly influential honours thesis in the mid-90s? You know the one, read by a huge audience of my supervisor and whichever poor sod they got to mark the thing).
It’s the very popularity of genre fiction which is at the heart of much of the tut-tutting against it, for how can it be true art with all the associated in-depth artistic integrity if someone’s trying to make money by appealing to a mass market? Or so goes the argument.
This has real-world correlations. As a writer trying to sell short fiction to magazines, it’s the SpecFic magazines which pay. Literary Fiction mags, not so much. As in, not at all, really, not unless you’re hitting the New Yorker or something, in which case you’ve obviously already made it. But for us emerging writer types trying to make a name for ourselves, the literary fiction world does not generally bring cash – often because they don’t have any – while the SpecFic world uses payment rates as a measure of professionalism. Markets are defined as Pro, Semi-Pro or Low-paying/Token based around their pay rates: often above 6c/word for Pro, between 2-6c/word for semi-pro, and so forth. This then becomes a measure of career progression, whether or not you’ve “cracked the pro markets”, where you’re selling. How much you’re earning.
It’s a different world, a different mindset. Do we write for cash or does that constitute some kind of artistic selling-out? Does this impact quality or is fine writing possible when trying to make a buck at the same time?
It’s a false dichotomy, of course. A hierarchy of literary-ness with fine literature on top and the genre plebs at the bottom which we all know is bollocks, but which, when we pose questions like “why does everybody hate SpecFic?” and go on to defend the genre and spruik it’s literary merits, we actually just end up supporting. When we ask why does everybody hate SpecFic, we’re actually asking why do some voices in the literary establishment dismiss it as commercial crap without real literary quality, and by framing the debate in such a way we elevate those voices as the ones to take seriously. The ones we need to argue with, to convince, to change their minds and have them accept genre as artistically valid. We’re trying to persuade them what we love is as important and as ‘quality’ as what they love.
It goes both ways. Look at the Hugo Awards dramas of the last couple of years, with the various Puppies factions doing their best to co-opt the voting slate in the name of promoting “real” science fiction and fantasy, as opposed to the perceived pretentions to literature they didn’t like. It certainly started a war-of-words across my social media feeds, all boiling down to the same argument: has Speculative Fiction forgotten its roots, stopped being about good fun spaceships and inter-galactic battles, and started taking itself way too seriously?
Specifically, has it become “too literary”?
The hating on Literary Fiction is, of course, as ridiculous as the hating on Genre Fiction. As if SpecFic had never been literary, pfft. It started literary. It’s always been literary, from Shelley to Morrison and beyond. You think Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren isn’t literary? Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series? The woman won a Nobel Prize for Literature, and that’s before writing her Canopus series, so it’s not like she was just starting out writing dodgy stuff before finding her literary stride. There’s always been high literature within Speculative Fiction, just as there’s always been good, fun, pulpy, schlocky stuff too.
Genre is many things. A set of marketing labels, a series of buckets in which to group like works, a useful way in which to analyse the meaning of works. But what it’s not is an indicator of quality. Writer, teacher, SFF author, Brian Sanderson, has noted that SFF genres utilise a lot of tropes, but the tropes do not equal the genre. In his view, those most often dismissive of SFF are so because they see only the tropes and not the genre. Maybe it’s the same the other way. Maybe the LitFic haters see only the literary tropes. Or maybe they just have a chip on their shoulder.
When arguing for genre fiction to be taken seriously, we perhaps need to remember it already is taken seriously by those who read it and love it and watch it and write it. By those who study it and review it. I started university in the 90s and studied a great deal of science fiction and fantasy during my time back then. The academic world does take it seriously, right alongside the classic dead-white-male literary canon, even if there are individuals who might not like it.
But when we frame debates by setting up genres like Speculative Fiction up as an underdog against a High Literature canon, all we end up doing is engaging with and thus supporting the existence of an illusory literary hierarchy which places our favoured genres at the bottom. A hierarchy which doesn’t actually exist outside of the minds of those who want to keep genre at the bottom of it, and those of us who can’t help but rail against that.
It’s something I’ve long been guilty of because, well, I love a good underdog. And I get my back up when my favourite genres are dismissed by those who consider their taste so much the finer. But maybe it’s time to back away from the debate and just let the work stand on its own. There’s a lot of crap in the SpecFic world. There’s a lot of crap in the LitFic one too. Quality writing is quality writing and that’s not defined by a book’s genre, or its commercial potential, or indeed, even by its cover.
But hey, all that said, I’m not likely to stop reading about, or debating, or arguing genre any time soon, either. It’s way too much fun.