I’m a little late to the game on this, but on the blog for my Hugo Book Club, I posted about a recent essay making the rounds on the internet:
As I’m sure we’re all aware, SF/F/H catches a lot of shit from fans of “literary” type fiction, who call genre stuff juvenile and silly (consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which cannot deign to be shelved with the sciffy stuff on the shelves at most bookstores, and so is instead found crammed in among the “Literature”).
So in an attempt to bridge what he sees as an artificial divide between the two, Daniel Abraham (a genre writer) penned a hilarious love letter from Genre to Mainstream.
Here’s an excerpt:
You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet, Mary Shelly and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.
You can read the whole thing on SF Signal here. It’s fucking hilarious.
As you can imagine, a discussion in the comments ensued, so I decided to post a follow up to this which I figured I would post here, too.
I’m new(ish) to this whole debate (I honestly have nothing against mainstream stuff, but it’s just not something that pushes my buttons so I don’t seek it out), just like I’m new(ish) to the world of publishing, so I’m not quite sure how all the politics plays out. As such, I’d like to see if anyone else wants to weigh in on my opinion on this mess, since I’m making extremely broad strokes here and I’d like to be corrected if I’m way off base about any of this.
That being said, here’s my comment:
So I was trying to stay neutral in the post because this is one of those impossible questions that makes a fun point to argue.
I would say, by and large, the distinction comes mostly from readers (since major publishing houses for “mainstream” books have “genre” subsidiares beneath them. For example, Tor Books are a subsidiary of Macmillan (which does everything from publishing things like Nature and Scientific American to children’s books to textbooks), so each wing has to pull it’s weight for the benefit of the entire company, which means publishing things that will sell.
Based on recent conversations and things I’ve read, I can safely say that every single editor wants to publish the books that knock their socks off – the problems come in with accepting manuscripts at the marketing level (they know editors fall in love easily, so THEY MUST BE STOPPED). This actually works in FAVOR of the genre markets because it’s got the built it audience that makes marketing inherently easier (including geeks that love to geek out about sub-genre distinctions, so they’ll buy ANYTHING that tickles their ghost-pig-PoMo-punk obsession). It’s harder to sell to mainstream audiences because those core markets (to me) actually seem LESS likely to a given book that comes out.
And this really gets to who these publishing companies THINK their readership is – and let’s face it, kids that like SF/F/H seem to be a lot more likely to continue reading SF/F/H stuff as adults, not only because it’s escapist and appeals to folks that are unhappy as kids, who are more likely to become obsessive geeks when they’re older, but also because it’s something kids have to WORK to do – we’re forced to read mostly mainstream stuff as kids, and you have to go out of your way to read genre stuff because it was hardly ever assigned (unless you had awesome teachers). And any kid that’s going out of their way to do something like that is gonna likely keep on doing that when they’re older.
Therefore, since it’s harder to market to a mainstream audience, I would guess the marketers a lot pickier about buying books from new mainstream authors because unless can get a movie deal, is a shoe-in for the Oprah book club, or appeals to the geeks on the opposite end of the spectrum (the literary snobs), it’s not going to sell well because no one’s gonna be paying attention to it.
So this brings me back around to what I was saying: it’s all because of the readers. And the most vocal factions for these arguments come from geeks from both the literary AND the genre sides.
I’m painting broad generalizations here, but I think a large part of this perceived snobbery is because genre stuff is more visible (and subject to a lot of Hollywoodization), which goes back to marketing. But this time it’s Hollywood marketing, which is focused on making what’s gonna put the most butts in chairs, which are summer blockbusters with lots of explosions. SF/F/H are what make the prettiest movies (and the most widely-appealing to general audiences). Look at Will Smith’s career – he wanted to make a successful movie, so he looked at trends for the best-grossing movies. What did they mainly consist of? SHIT WITH GENRE ELEMENTS.
On the other hand, most “mainstream” Oscar-caliber movies (the kind we would consider literary, and we’ll just pretend that “Oscar-caliber” means something for now), are mostly not adapted works from literary books – they’re constructed exclusively for the screen (because writing a glorious screenplay is a completely different skill than writing a glorious book). This is why there’s an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: because it’s fucking hard to do well. I would imagine this would let the supposed “literature snobs” turn their nose up at the most public face of genre: movies.
This doesn’t mean that genre folks are exempt from the assholery going around. There are plenty of people that dislike mainstream stuff because they were forced to read it as kids and never identified with anything quite as much as they did genre stuff (::raises hand::). People hang their identity on the things that define them as kids (and I have to say, I’ve rarely met anyone that read genre stuff enough to care about this kind of debate who started reading it when they were adults). And when you feel like people are mocking something you care deeply about, you get defensive. And I have to say, I get pretty fucking defensive around a certain coworker of mine who makes fun of my love of SF/F/H by pronouncing she would never deign to read a book with a spaceship on the cover, because, like, OMG, she would, like, DIE (and she meanwhile loves Transformers and Jurassic Park).
So we can blame it on the geeks.
Oh crap. That’s us.
P.S. the title is from The National song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby” and has nothing to do with any pedantry attempted on my part.
I think the ghost-pig-PoMo-punk snobs are way off base in their refusal to accept the historical fiction and space opera genre elements of the HiFi-ghost-PoMo-SO genre. And they still stubbornly revere the porcine works we were all forced to read as children, and that were crammed down our throats in the form of mainstream Hollywood trash like “Babe” (first the animated, and then the two live action CG puppet interpretations). If Borg spirits being reimagined as having caused the conception of Evil Jean-Luc Picard can’t get their juices flowing, the GPPMP elitists can have their Oprah’s book clubs.
Holy shit, Dan – this totally made my day. Now I need to write a ghost-pig-post-modern punk story that mashes up with the HiFi-ghostpig-PoMo-Space opera sub-sub-sub genre
Excellent! But it MUST include Evil Jean-Luc Picard. Bonus points if he confronts a mutant pig-tribble horde.
You make an interesting point about the marketing of mainstream literary fiction being inherently different (more diffuse) than genre fiction. It’s something I’ll have to chew on a bit to really think through some of its further implications.
But one other factor that ties into this is the critical establishment: for years (decades, even) genre was routinely ignored by the traditional arbiters of “taste”…even though geeks like us were lapping it up. Interesting factoid: The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth (one of the major critical texts of the 20th century) has one page indexed under “fantasy” and forty seven under “realism”. Probably came of genre being pulpy, trashy, and gaudy (yay!).
Since then, the New Wave hit, the US literary establishment “discovered” fabulists like Calvino and Borges, and heretofore realistic giants like Nabokov started to play with alternate history. That’s when the critical establishment (or at least a small portion of it) started to pay more attention to genre…and when the boundaries between speculative fiction and “mainstream” fiction began to gradually blur. Genre’s been gradually getting more critical love, and the social stigma seems to be eroding.
Personally, I think the Harry Potter generation (or its children) will kill off the stigma and give genre an equal critical footing. ‘Course that might just be wishful thinking.
Thanks Chris! That’s really interesting. I suspected the critics had something to do with it, but I don’t know enough about any literary history (up until the point I actually started paying attention) to even begin forming hypotheses.
I think you’ve a point about the Harry Potter generation, just because those books got so many kids (and even adults) reading a genre they normally wouldn’t have. A while that seed might not have taken root in a lot of the adults, it most definitely will have in a lot of those kids. I’ll say this – when we’re older and going to cons, we’ll be able to talk to the young HP-inspired whippersnappers about the days before genre went completely mainstream in proper “get-off-my-lawn” fashion 🙂
And oh yeah. We’ll have onions tied to our belts (it was the style at the time).