The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name

200px-Citizen_smithWell, then. It seems that I’ve temporarily become a bit of an activist, following the BBC’s shameful treatment of speculative fiction on World Book Night. After reading Stephen Hunt’s clarion call to action, I was very happy to add my name to his letter, and here is the full list of signatories (incidentally, that’s the second time in recent weeks that I’ve found myself on the same page as the likes of Michael Moorcock – oh, calm down, Pinnock).

There’s a weird disconnection going on here. The most anticipated event right now in UK television (actually, probably the most anticipated event in the UK, full stop – sorry Kate’n’Wills) is the start of the new series of Doctor Who. And yet science fiction is still the genre that dare not speak its name.

It’s not just the BBC that are guilty here. I was searching for an article on the 1983 Best of Young British Novelists campaign just now, and I came across this stupendously idiotic subhead. Whatever happened to Christopher Priest? Well, he carried on writing a load of fascinating and innovative novels that were largely ignored by the mainstream press, that’s what he did. Why were they ignored? I give you three guesses. (Incidentally, it’s worth reading Priest’s take on that campaign – scroll down to 1983.)

Here’s another one. I wonder how many literary types out there have ever heard of Stanislaw Lem’s “A Perfect Vacuum.” It’s possibly the most über-literary book ever written, out-Borgesing Borges himself and it should be the kind of cult classic that causes everyone to give a knowing nod whenever its name is mentioned. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about it. The only reason I’ve ever read it is that it came in a portmanteau edition along with “Solaris” (ah, you’ve heard of that one, haven’t you?) And as for why Lem isn’t up there with all the other greats of 20th century fiction, I will give you the same three guesses as before.

As a reader, I really don’t give a toss what genre a book belongs to. I like to read a mixture of stuff, for the same reason that I like to listen to a mixture of stuff and eat a mixture of stuff. Doesn’t everyone? Apparently not, it seems.

As a writer, I apply the same logic. I’ve written stories that would definitely be described as literary. But I’ve also written horror, science fiction and mainstream humour. I wrote “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” simply because it struck me as a cool idea that might be fun to explore – which is as good a reason as any for writing something, isn’t it?

There is hope, though. In the small presses, the distinctions are beginning to blur (I refer you once again to this post by Camille Gooderham-Campbell of Every Day Fiction, for example). And writers like Adam Marek are being taken seriously even when they manage to smuggle a zombie story into their first collection of short stories. Maybe one day the establishment will catch up, eh?

10 thoughts on “The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name

  1. I love Adam,’s stories! Long live his zombie story. I havent dared explore zombies yet- but I smuggled a bit of sci fi into ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ in the form of a story about a futuristic body-archelogist. ‘Storm Warning’ has two pieces that might be described as speculative… At least, I think that’s what they are, maybe not. Isn’t it a shame that we have to have these boxes? Why cant we just have exciting writing? As opposed to safe, unexciting and unmemorable.

  2. I agree with Vanessa. Surely there is good writing and bad writing. Where and when it’s set shouldn’t matter. I mix all different genres into my work, including some sci-fi or magic realism in with more straightforward literary pieces. Sidelining sci-fi just ignores a huge block of great writing.

  3. Thanks for dropping in, Calum! You’re right – it should just be a question of good or bad writing. Interestingly, some of the most rigorous group critiquing I’ve seen in action is on a genre site, Cafe Doom.

  4. Ha! The infamous BBC programme could bring itself to look into chick lit, but didn’t darken the door of sci-fi or fantasy. It seems that there a lot of people who can’t see the writing quality if the topic doesn’t suit them.

  5. Thanks so much for this, Jon, it’s utterly ridiculous, in my opinion. I have recently been trying to understand how to define SF, since whenever I say I write “science-inspired fiction” many people seem to like to slide out the “-inspired” and make it science fiction, but I feel like a fraud if they do that, because I hardly know anything about SF, so can’t claim to be writing it. But what I have read, so much of it, is just fantastically imaginative writing, and that’s all I look for. As V says, there’s good writing and not so good writing. My new find, Carol Emshwiller, who is now 90 and has now published her Collected Stories, says on the back: “I’ve never known quite what to call my writing. When I’m boasting I call it Magical Realism… and some of it is… It’s often fantasy though lots of it is actually science fiction.” Labels, labels, labels…they’ll be the death of us. It’s criminal that there wasn’t a single SF book on the WOrld Book Night list – and there were no short stories either, but I’m not going to start that discussion! Why not a World Marginalised Book Night?!

  6. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. I read and write both speculative and mainstream works, as so many people do. I don’t care what “genre” it is, just whether it’s any good …

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