Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels — A defence of genre

Farenheit 451 cover image

When colleagues and acquaintances first hear that I write fiction, they’re usually pretty interested. Just as I’m usually interested when I find out that someone else is an artist or a musician, I guess. I suppose we hear that someone has a creative hobby and we begin to suspect that they aren’t going to be as boring as we originally thought…

One of the first questions people usually ask me is: What do you write about? Or, in a slightly different form: What kind of books do you write? Genre, it seems, is the first thing most people want to know about writers.

As I’ve only really written one novel-length piece, I usually struggle to answer this as succinctly as I’d like. I’m working on a second novel, but it’s nothing like my first project. Where my first novel has mythical and magical elements that you might expect to find in something by Neil Gaiman, my second novel has a strong sci-fi backbone running through it. And there are other short stories I’ve worked on that might teeter into the lofty realms of ‘literary fiction’. For any story I write, it has to satisfy one important criterion: Would I like to read this?

If the answer is no, then I really don’t think I should dedicate months, and perhaps years, to it. One of the trickiest things about writing a book is finding the willpower to keep going through the dry spells; so it’s essential for me that I personally enjoy the story and would want to read it if someone else had written it. I think I perhaps read a lot more fantasy stories when I began Lyrebird and Dreamboy, and I’ve given much more time to science fiction in recent years—so that would explain why my writing brain has drifted off in this direction.

Ultimately, I think science fiction and fantasy (low fantasy in my case) have a lot in common, as they both enable the writer to drastically alter the world they’re writing about. In science fiction, we might use a time machine to visit parts of our lives (like in Back to the Future, for example), while fantasy allows us to follow Ebenezer Scrooge as he visits the past, present and future with the help of three Christmas ghosts. Two very different stories with different types of time travel, but they both deal with and explore something impossible and utterly fascinating.

It’s fantasy and sci-fi’s abilities to experiment with the rules that I enjoy most about them. It’s why I read them and it’s why I write them. But some people dismiss these stories, along with detective novels, horror novels and anything else you can think of that might be referred to as ‘genre fiction’. Recently, I feel like I’m reading more and more scathing opinions of ‘genre fiction’.

Side note: ‘Genre fiction’ is roughly defined as follows:Demolished Man cover

‘Genre fiction’ is fiction that fits into one of the accepted genres (fantasy, science fiction, horror, western, mystery and romance). People tend to read ‘genre fiction’ for entertainment as opposed to gain any stronger sense of where the book belongs in the wider world of literature.

It is a common opinion of academics, and some writers, that ‘genre fiction’ is common and vulgar when compared with ‘literary fiction’. ‘Literary fiction’ is much harder to define, as it seems to count as anything the critics agree is ‘literary fiction’! It’s quite similar to the art world in this respect, where an artefact’s artistic worth is agreed upon by the elite of the art community, sometimes to the utter confusion of the hoi polloi.

It was this article about how Stephen King deals with intellectualism in his writing that got me thinking a little more deeply about all of this genre nonsense. But it wasn’t really the article that got me going; it was all of the pretentious comments below and on Facebook that angered me. Some people even went as far as to say that ‘genre fiction’ is for children and that ‘literary fiction’ is for adults. Despite this being obvious internet trolling, the snobbish tone is very familiar to me. I suspect that their rancour has been learned from the many literary critics over the years who have openly detested and renounced sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.

The ‘genre fiction’ hatred became even more obvious to me when I began applying to literary agents a couple of months ago. I spent a lot of time researching before I started contacting agents. Sometimes I would find an agent I was suitably impressed with only to discover that they were willing to look at any book except sci-fi, fantasy, and sometimes horror. I found myself regularly disappointed, and I had to abandon several impressive agents that I really wanted to work with.

For the people who hate sci-fi and fantasy, there doesn’t seem to be one overall consensus on what makes it worse than ‘literary fiction’. Some ‘literary fiction’ even dips into these genres at different points along the way. If I had to summarise the sense of ill will some people seem to have towards these genres, I say that it’s a form of snobbery akin to the veneration of classical music above any and all other kinds of music. This frustrates me, because there are so many fantastic sci-fi and fantasy books that don’t get the acclaim they deserve. Sure, there are the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and various other genre-specific awards, but there are few (if any) literary awards that seem to give fantasy and sci-fi the credit I think they deserve.

I could console myself with the fact that both genres sell well, as geeks the world over are some of the most avid readers. And this is some consolation. But I’m soon to begin a creative writing MA and it’s been about six years since I last found myself in an academic setting. I’m really excited about the course, but I’m also dreading it a little. I can already hear the barely-disguised contempt for sci-fi and fantasy in my fellow students’ voices. I really can almost hear it: it’s a polite, middle-class sort of distaste—the sort of look a true gastronome might give a fellow diner who orders their steak well done instead of rare. There’s a sense that even though we’re both eating steak, they know how it should really be cooked.

i-am-legend coverDoes any of this mean I’m going to stop reading and writing sci-fi and fantasy books? No. Obviously not. Although I suspect you could tell that from my tone… However, I am keen to challenge people’s opinions of genres, and I hope that my love for ‘literary fiction’ will bleed more than a little into my ‘genre fiction’ offerings. I hope that I can convince a few naysayers that I have something to offer them, and that some of my favourite authors have something to offer them. I’m not suggesting that I’d like my writing to be genre busting (which is more than a little clichéd), but I hope that some of my language, my themes and the overall narrative style can convince one or two people that there is no essential difference between ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’—that they’re all fiction, in the end.

All of this might sound hypocritical, as I said at the start of the blog post that I like to write the stories that I like to read: that I write for myself. But I also write for other people. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. I always write with an audience in mind. I don’t always know who the audience is, but I know that they are humans looking to be entertained, charmed, cajoled and forced to feel emotions they haven’t felt in a while. I have taken so much pleasure from my sci-fi and fantasy books and I’d like to give a little back.

So, if you’re a naysayer, I’d love to hear why you avoid these genres. I’m genuinely interested. And if you’re an avid sci-fi or fantasy reader, I’d love to hear why you love these genres so much. And if what really gets your engine going is romance novels, westerns, or some other weird and wonderful genre I haven’t mentioned, then I want to know why, so please post a comment below or get in touch via my contact page. If you’re a writer, I’d especially like to hear your views on genre. Do you think you write within a certain genre? Did you write in this genre on purpose, or did you stumble into it? Please get in touch.

Have your say. Leave a comment.
  1. Joma says:

    Just read an interview with Brian Aldiss in which the interviewer quotes him to him:
    ‘Just as the [literary] establishment is philistine about science, the bulk of the science-fiction readership is philistine about literature.’
    Whilst I am not the biggest Aldiss fan I think he makes a valid point. I think you make the point that we shouldn’t be closed minded very well, no matter where our interests lie.

    Reply

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