When is Speculative Fiction not Speculative Fiction?

Most of us are on this website because we enjoy speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, all those other sub-genres that we can slice and dice with the best of them.  A surprising number of readers, though, say “No thanks, not for me” when presented with speculative fiction.  Except those same readers often *do* read speculative fiction, and they enjoy it.

Last week, I finished reading one of the best post-apocalyptic SF novels I’ve read in years.  It had character development.  It had (some) science.  It had major inquiries into human nature, including the definition of “family”, “parent”, and “child.”

And it had vampires.

(OK, they weren’t seductive, sexy Transylvanian vampires.  They were victims of a horrible plague vampires.  But vampires, all the same, complete with sensitivity to light, crazed bloodlust, hanging upside down in dark corners, etc.)

The book was Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE.  While it is almost 800 pages long, the words flew by.  I stayed up several evenings, far past my bedtime, just so that I could gulp down another chapter or five.

When I speak to “literary fiction” readers, they’re familiar with THE PASSAGE.  After all, it was written by a Rice University Professor of English, a guy with two slim novels under his belt, a past winner of the PEN/Faulkner award (and you know they don’t hand *that* out to the first genre writer who happens to walk by!)

When I speak to “genre” readers, almost no one is familiar with THE PASSAGE.  It doesn’t show up on genre bestseller lists.  Fans who read voraciously in the SF and fantasy fields looked at me blankly when I mentioned the book at a recent con.

The last time I remember such a split in categorization, I had just finished reading Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, a week before World Fantasy.  The book, which is narrated by a murdered girl looking back at the world of the living from her place in heaven, was mentioned by another author on a panel.  A couple of fans went to the dealer room to buy this modern fantasy, and no dealer had a copy in stock; no one had even heard of the book.  They did not even recognize the title (and the book had been on the NYT Bestseller list for *weeks* at that point.)

Similarly, THE HISTORIAN was trumpeted as literary fiction as it scaled the bestseller lists.  Its epistolary structure and largely historical setting seemed to make people forget that it was a book about vampire hunters.

What’s going on here?  When is a spec fic book not spec fic?  Is it cover art that confuses people?  Is it bestseller status?  Is it a sort of reverse snobism – if it’s successful with the general public, we don’t want it in our genre clubhouse?

What other books would you place on this list?  What spec fic books succeed in the mundane world, but fail in our specialists’ corner?

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  1. 1. Skip

    I read a fair amount of non-SF, although it almost entirely consists of what I call ‘airport fiction’, the kind of throwaway paperbacks that one gets in an airport bookstore, just to make sure that one has enough books to get through the trip. And I can’t speak for others, but the reason I didn’t read the passage was twofold – one actually was the awards the author had won. In my experience, authors win literary awards for many reasons, but clear, readable, enjoyable prose is not one of them.

    The other was just the sheer amount of hype made me think that it was being hyped not for its inherent quality, but for its politics. In other words, I suspected that I’d find out in the end that it was all Bush’s fault, or the military’s, or something like that. And while it is possible for me to enjoy books whose politics I disagree with, they need to be well written, “plausible” within their own rules, and not beat you about the head with their “lessons”. See, for example, the genre book “Little Brother” which failed on all three counts, and within the SF community received a ton of hype.

    So a combination of those two factors made me not buy the book and throw it into my ‘to be read’ pile.

  2. 2. Laura Conrad

    Margaret Atwood seems to fit here. I submitted “The Year of the Flood” for a Hugo award nomination last year and it didn’t make the list, even though I certainly know and trust Margaret Attwood more than any of the people who did make the list. I’m not sure whether I would have voted for it over “The Windup Girl” (which I did vote for, and it won jointly), but I certainly thought it was better than several of the others.

    “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a wonderful dystopia, and both “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” have quite a bit of science in them, as well as characters and plot.

  3. 3. Doug Hulick

    I think part of this is in reaction to the efforts of authors like Atwood, McCarthy and others who seem to go out of their way to disassociate themselves and their works from the SFF genre. Likewise, there have been works that have been heralded as “new and original” by mainstream critics, leaving SFF readers & writers to scratch their heads and say, “But, we’ve been doing that for years. And better. Hello? Anyone?”

    So I think it is a two way street in many ways, where spec fic gets the tilted nose from many people as either being “fluff” or “too hard” or (pick your reason), while at the same time many so-called mainstream successes get the raspberry in spec fic circles because we’ve seen it before, or don’t trust the mainstream to know an original/good take on a SFF theme when they see it, or are just, you know, tired of being written off as “escapist fiction” by the literati (read: sour grapes).

    It’s a gap dug by both sides, and one neither side seems terribly willing to bridge.*

    * = There are exceptions, of course, such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who freely proclaim their SFF roots & inspirations; but, well, they are the exceptions.

  4. 4. Hillevi

    The two examples that leap to my mind are The Time Traveler’s Wife and He, She and It.

    I had to force myself through the Nifenegger, fuming as I did about how badly handled the SF elements were, conscious as I read of how many books handled similar ideas, but much, much better. I think the only reason I actually finished the book was because it was all I had for a trans-Atlantic flight.

    The Piercy was different, insofar as it is, actually, superbly well done, and as a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award it can’t be said to have been repudiated by the SF community. Woman on the Edge of Time is generally thought of as SF, too. Interestingly, when I called two local bookshops to see whether they carry them, both said that both Piercy books are in stock, and shelved with feminist literature, not even with fiction.

    Hunh. Which reminds me of Lessing’s Golden Notebook. Does anyone ever consider that to be science fiction? Insofar as some folks believe that psychology is a science, it might qualify.

  5. 5. Saracen

    Sorry, I found THE PASSAGE to be mediocre.

    I felt the whole first part of the novel to be unnecessary in relation to the rest. I thought the novel could have started in the colony and moved on from there. Ironic since I actually enjoyed the first part of the novel more than the remainder.

    Also, Cronin’s vampires glowed in the dark… I’m sorry, that fails the smell test right there. It makes no sense.

    The other issue is as stated by Doug Hulick above. It seems like when literary writers use the same conventions of speculative fiction writers it’s heralded as something original and amazing when it’s been done for years and better by others already.

    And then there’s the constant distancing they do (with noted exceptions) from spec-fiction when the association inevitably comes up.

  6. 6. Andrew A. A.

    I was at a wedding just recently and during the 2 day process I carried around a Fantasy Novel hugo award winner which I thoroughly enjoyed. A woman from Australia, decided I was her project for the wedding and made sure I sat where I needed to, danced when it was appropriate and put the book down everyonce in awhile. She said to me, “I don’t understand why people read Fantasy novels. Historical fictions are so much better…”

    There the same thing right? Isn’t Ian Tregillis novel historical fiction? Gregory Keyes? Mark Twains “Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”? I’m stretching with that last one… or am I?

    For every writer that tries to dissociate themselves from Speculative fiction we need to give props for those who have been ‘offered’ to jump to the fiction club but refuses, like China Mieville and Neal Stephenson.

  7. 7. Mindy Klasky

    Skip – I like your category of “airport fiction”; I’ve read a lot of it (too much of it!) myself. I agree with your general assessment of literary awards; however, I found Cronin’s prose to be very clear, readable, and enjoyable. (Obviously, though some of our other commenters disagree!) As for politics – the military takes some bashing (especially in the first third), but I read the last quarter of the book as pro-military, especially pro-individual-soldiers-who-comprise-the-military.

    Laura – I agree that Atwood fits into the discussion (and I’d written about her originally, but deleted that part of my post.) I think there’s another whole post to be made about *authors* dissing SF readers! (Likely more than one post there…)

    Doug – I do think that there’s pushback, because of the behavior of some authors. I was very intrigued by my study of the stock of English-lanugage fiction in a *huge* Finnish bookstore earlier this fall – lots and lots (and *lots*) of speculative fiction, not differentiated by genre, almost all from U.K. publishers (which I don’t think was coincidental.) I find the examples of Chabon and Lethem to be fascinating – they don’t seem to have suffered for maintaining loyalty to their roots!

    Hillevi – Interesting to use TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE as an example – I read it and loved it, but I read it as a romance novel (and possibly as a fantasy novel, with hand-waved magic time travel.) I never attempted to read it as science fiction, so the lack of scientific basis, including satisfactory grappling with paradox didn’t bother me. I read WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME as a feminist book (it was given to me by a friend who was consciously feeding the gap that she perceived in my politically oriented reading.) Again, I didn’t read the time slip as a science fictional inquiry. So – I guess I’ve identified a huge blind spot in my own classification – “time travel” != speculative fiction ::wry grin:: (I haven’t read the Lessing.)

    Saracen – I agree that the first third of the book could have been separated from the rest, but I very much enjoyed the storytelling, including the characterization manifest in the narration. (I used to read a *lot* of thrillers but haven’t in years…) And while I, too, get annoyed by the distancing of many litfic authors from our specfic corner of the world, I’ve been charmed by Cronin’s apparent true awe of getting a phone call from Steven King :-)

    Andrew – I spend too much time reading historical romance (for my other writing projects), and let me assure you, there’s more spec fic in a lot of what’s published *there* than on the bookshelves we tend to haunt in bookstores :-)

  8. 8. Andrea K Hosth

    I haven’t read any of the books listed. And not because I have any issue with whether the authors consider themselves SFF authors or not. They’re simply not marketed at me.

    They’re not in the section of the bookstore I browse. They don’t have SFF covers which tell me to pick them up. So I never pick them up.

    Well – that’s part of the reason. The main reason is that none of them have sounded remotely interesting. They might include fantasy or sf elements, but (from what little I can judge having not read them) they are generally not new or interesting fantasy elements, or elements treated in a way which interests me.

    I’m not put off by the language, but the tone.

  9. 9. Daemon

    A major part of the problem is simply marketing niches.

    If you only generally read genre fiction, then you probably don’t go looking through the litfic part of the bookstore, read litfic blogs, etc. and as a result won’t be aware of the existence of any given random litfic work that can also be classed as genre.

    It’s hard to bring myself to spend the time and effort looking for good genre material that’s had the litfic label glued onto it, when there’s tons of unread genre sitting right there in the genre sections of the bookstore/library.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been wondering if I want to read THE PASSAGE. Now I will.

    There’s an interesting sidebar to how the book was published. I’ve never heard the exact story, but supposedly Cronin originally submitted the ms under a pseudonym. According to the version I heard, Cronin did this to see if the book would stand on its own merits. The cynic in me thinks otherwise. Then his editor decided that, no, THE PASSAGE did not need to be relegated to the specfic ghetto, and the rest is history.

  11. 11. Mindy Klasky

    Sam – that’s an interesting sidebar – I had not heard that little fillip on the main story!

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Author Information

Mindy Klasky

Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.

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