Genre ghetto

I recently did something that I don’t usually do: I read a book that’s gotten a lot of buzz. Tenth of December,* a collection of short stories, was heralded as “the best book you’ll read this year” by the New York Times Magazine in an article from the beginning of the January.  So my initial reaction was, of course, scorn and amused derision at such hyperbole.  This was the wrong reaction, by the way.  The book is good.  The book is really, really good.  It’s exactly what I think short stories should do: make you drop your head in your hands at the end of each one and say, “ohmyGOD!”

Still, reading this book put me in mind of an interesting problem that keeps plaguing those of us who write in the speculative genres.

Tenth of December spends a lot of time analyzing how people get stuck in their heads and mess themselves up.  In one of the stories, the problem is the out-of-control conspicuous consumption that goes with the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, and in another the question is how you can convince yourself something is okay even though it’s obviously not.  In both of these stories, the mechanism is slightly futuristic medical technology – in other words, pure science fiction. I need to add it was brilliantly done in both cases, using the SF tropes exactly as they should be used, to put the magnifying glass on things we might otherwise take for granted and overlook. But was the book marketed in any way as science fiction, or even as having SF stories included?  Of course not.

So Tenth of December joins the ranks of mainstream books using speculative fiction tropes without any reference to the genre.  Some recent examples have become very big books: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the book group favorites The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Calling Invisible Women, and the just-released When We Wake. They don’t look like science-fiction books, they don’t have SF covers, and god forbid the words “science fiction” appear anywhere in the cover copy where they might scare off readers.

It’s interesting, because you would think with all this recent melding of mainstream and genre fiction, readers and the literary establishment would become less squeamish about SF.  But no, the old prejudices are alive and well, as you can see in this recent blog post.  The writer makes very important (and dismal) observations about how the current economic climate is hurting the market for books and making it nearly impossible for writers to make a living, but he can’t resist getting in a dig at “writers of science fiction, fantasy, crime and other genres, writers willing to accept pretty much any lowball offer to be published.”

The reason for this continued dismissal of science fiction and fantasy seems obvious: It’s the economy, stupid.  Writers are not immune to that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses jealousy, and it can be hard to watch yet another vampire romance sell a hundred thousand copies when your publisher won’t even give you the time of day anymore. (I know, as I fall more into the publisher-won’t-call camp than the bestselling-vampire-romance camp.)  But let’s call it what it is.  It’s all about the money, which isn’t surprising in a world where retirees and poor children are accused of being greedy money grabbers.  The genre ghetto doesn’t exist because SF/F is inherently inferior.  It exists because of sour grapes.

* Yes, all my book title links are going to WorldCat, a directory of libraries nationwide, rather than to an online book retailer. I didn’t feel like directing more business to Amazon today. Sour grapes.

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