Defining Our Genre

When I somewhat jokingly complained to a writer friend about not getting invited to a comic con because I wasn’t one of the “cool kids,” I expected him to laugh at me and tell me I was acting (as usual) like a diva.  Instead, he said without missing a beat, mind you, “Maybe it’s because you don’t write science fiction.”

I don’t?

Okay, it’s true: the last time I checked the spine of my book it did say “romance” right there in black… and, uh,  pink.  But you’d only need to read the back cover copy to realize that what I write now very squarely falls under the broader definition of “speculative fiction.”  Dude, I have a werewolf in my most recent release!  You don’t really get much more fantasy than that, do you?

Plus, I used to write books that were very obviously science fiction, even if they occasionally won a mystery award.  Do those lines on my resume disappear just because what I now write gets labeled something else?

 I guess for some people, they do. 

And I think that’s a problem, and part of the reason we end up having discussions like this in our genre.  Frankly, it pisses me off.  I mean, when I first had the opportunity, I signed up for a lifetime membership in SFWA.  Having watched the organization (and writers of the genre) for years at that point, I realized that we seem to have a tendency toward exclusion.  Maybe it’s because we weren’t the cool kids in high school and now it’s our big chance to be our own clique, but whatever the reason, we seem to like to define our genre very narrowly. 

I don’t get it.  I think I write science fiction/fantasy still, regardless of pink words on a spine.  I think J. K. Rowling writes SF/F, as does MaryJanice Davidson, and Stephen King, and Ed Brubaker.  So what that some of these authors get different labels on their spines: YA, romance, horror, or (the dreaded) graphic novel/comic-book.  To me, they all have stories that are speculative at their heart.  They all deal in the realm of “what if?”  A werewolf would not be out of place in any of their stories — and that makes us kin, damn it.

What does exclusion get us, anyway?

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  1. 1. Toast

    the same elistism happens among fans of the genre, i remember being hugely intimidated on my first few visits to Forbidden Planet, since my comic collection has never figured in the 100′s.

  2. 2. Mindy Klasky

    Thanks for the post, Tate, on a topic near and dear to my heart. (Maybe it’s just those of us spec fic authors with pink on our book spines, who feel this strongly? :-) )

    I think that those people who perpetuate the genre ghettos find strength in limited numbers – many hard-charging, strong-believing folks who mirror back to them the things they already know and believe. They don’t want to expand boundaries, because it’s scary and uncomfortable to be on unfamiliar territory. (And while I probably sound snide, I don’t mean to be.)

    In a lot of ways, I think there’s a lot in common with genre ghetto readers and people who discuss politics only with people who believe as they do. “How could ANYONE champion McCain/Obama/Biden/Palin? No one I knows can stand him/her!”

    There are a lot of voices out there, and the world’s a more interesting place when we listen to them all!

  3. 3. lyda morehouse

    Wow, quick responses! I must have touched a nerve… (and Mindy, I was totally thinking of you, too, so I’m glad you replied.)

    I realized after rereading my post before reading your responses that I forgot to answer my own question. What exclusion gets us is dwindling sales numbers that force is into other genres (which are more inclusive!)

    Damn it.

    /rant

  4. 4. Benjamin Carnys

    Interesting. I always thought of “speculative fiction” as being more inclusive on the surface, but more exclusive on a deeper level. To my mind, much of SF/fantasy/horror/paranormal romance (love that name)/whatever is not speculative fiction because it’s not, um, speculative. If a story doesn’t make any speculations, it’s not speculative fiction.

    Unfortunately for my tidy little world of SpecFic and non-SpecFic, what counts as valid speculation is culturally dependent. This isn’t just semiotics. One just has to consider the kind of things that are commonplace today (communications, most dramatically) that were once science (and speculative) fiction. A novel about mobile phones and their implications on society is not speculative — today — but would have been even 30 years ago. Even today, that novel would still be SF if marketed to, say, lost Amazonian tribes.

    Werewolves, aliens, artificial intelligences and so on are not inherently speculative. If paranormal romances, in general, and werewolf lovers, specifically, are not considered SF, perhaps its because those who judge them so do not consider the romantic implications of lycanthropy to be valid “speculations”?

    Perhaps for them lycanthropy has become so commonplace that such fiction is no longer speculative?

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Right on, Lyda! We YA writers often feel the same way. (And here I didn’t even think I was writing YA. Silly me.)

    Unfortunately, I think there will always be cool kids. All groups subdivide, no matter how persecuted they might be by other groups. Pecking order seems to be part of the human condition.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to rise above it.

  6. 6. Karen Wester Newton

    Benjamin– it sounds to me like you are trying limit “speculation” to the eventually possible, I don’t see where saying “what would it be like to live in a word where (vampires/fairies/telepaths/etc.) were real?” is not speculating. I think you are confusing predicting the future with speculating. The other half of spec fic is, after all, fiction.

  7. 7. Benjamin Carnys

    Actually, Karen, I agree with what you said. I think that’s exactly what speculative fiction is all about. My example of what counts as speculation changing over time was not intended to exclude anything.

    The question remains, What counts as speculation, and to who? I think that nothing is inherently speculative (in that sense we usually set aside for SF/F), or else everything is. Are stories about serial killers speculative fiction? Are stories about romance in strange but perfectly realistic circumstances speculative fiction? For the term to have meaning, it has to have limits. Otherwise we might just put “genre” in place of “speculative”, but I’d resist that. Being inclusive about genres means (I think) accepting that other people’s definitions might differ from one’s own, not modifying our definitions to be all-encompassing. It is mere coincidence that here we appear to be in agreement! :)

    I asserted in my previous post that werewolves etc are not inherently speculative. OK, suppose that they are inherently speculative. It is interesting to wonder whether some of these things that we think of as being typically or inherently speculative could lose that status. There are of course many examples, like satellites and late-60′s missions to the Moon, but what about — say — werewolves? What would it take for our opinions about werewolf stories to change so much that we would assume, by default, that they are not speculative fiction, but some other, distinct genre? What would it be like if some people already thought that way? What would we do if we disagreed with those people? Seems to me that Tate offers one thought-provoking answer to that question in her original post.

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Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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