When people ask me what type of stories I write, I eagerly tell them speculative fiction. The most common reaction is a blank stare and a repeat of the question “So what type of stories do you write?”.
It’s an age old dilemma that writers continue to struggle with when trying to promote their stories to the reading public. It’s only human nature that people want easily classifiable boxes to be able to judge their expectations against. A fan of mystery novels wants to be able to go to a section in the library or book store and know that the type of book they are picking up is more or less what they consider to be “mystery” . The problem is that any genre label like Mystery, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy are not homogeneous categories, there are very different shades within each genre.
Complicating matters is the perceived “Genre Ghetto” which is perpetuated by authors, critics, and readers alike. The mere phrase genre ghetto implies that there is a superior, more respected genre and that all other are less serious and somehow inferior. I am looking at you Literary Fiction. There is a false assumption that all writers aspire to write mainstream fiction or literary fiction. Yes, we want to reach the largest audience possible if this is what you mean by mainstream fiction, but on the other hand, I have no illusions that I need the “respect” of the literary establishment to validate my work, or that of other authors I admire and respect in the field. I do find it sad when the literary and book selling establishment “liberate” on of my fellow genre writers from the “ghetto and shelve them along mainstream authors in the literary fiction as happened to Philip K. Dick in the early 2000s when movies based on his work became successful. Dick finally found himself shelved along side Dickens, and Dickinson and a little place holder in the SF section letting long time fans like myself know that he had now “passed on” to the mainstream section.
This is just one of the reasons I prefer the label Speculative Fiction. You can google a half dozen definitions of speculative fiction, but I will give you my own – Any story that is set in a contemporary or historical recognizable society that contains some speculative element that is different from the reality around us. It may or may not contain interplanetary travel, it may or may not contain shape-shifting creatures, it may or may not involve time travel, it may or may not contain technology that is not yet invented, but it will contain something that does not exist in our current world, whether it be a peaceful planet living in harmony or one over run by a plague of zombies, there is always a speculative element.
“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writing in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
Authors like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. have long went on record stating that they definitively did not write science fiction. You could almost hear them shuddering at the mere mention of it. It’s not that I think they didn’t believe they were writing fictional stories with science or speculative elements, I think they shuddered at being labelled as such because of the mainstream literary critics held (still hold) such a disdain for the genre.
To me using the phrase speculative fiction is not an attempt to distance myself from my fellow writers that write space opera, urban fantasy, horror, steam punk, hard sf, or any other flavours of fiction that I love to read and write, but rather to embrace all those titles under one tent and attempt to level the playing field between traditional Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction.
There is so much great story telling out there in speculative fiction right now that it’s a shame that those people in the world that love unusual, moving stories, with real human drama and imaginative, thought provoking plots would pass on it, just because of some perceived bias. If you’re unfamiliar with genre, than ask around any book seller, fan or librarian in the know would happily point you in the direction of some of the best the world has to offer.
Post Script: While googling for a direct quote on science fiction genre that I recalled seeing once upon a time from Margaret Atwood, I came across a more recent excerpt froma book she wrote in 2011 called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination that talks about her avoidance of the label and some of the controversy surrounding it – http://io9.com/5847421/if-it-is-realistic-or-plausible-then-it-is-not-science-fiction
Pat of my series of the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2013