Tuesday, January 23, 2007

So which Genre is not even a Genre?

Linnea Sinclair has raised an important point with regard to Genre. She wrote yesterday :

My answer is, why should it be just any one thing or genre? You’ve never had rum raisin ice cream? You’ve never had mocha fudge mint chip ice cream? Must books be only chocolate or vanilla? Or how about a Cosmo Martini? Or Mango Mojito: mango rum, sugar, crushed ice, mint leaves, club soda. Our culinary palettes have expanded. Why not our literary palettes?

Translate that from cuisine to story, and what she's describing is Literature with a capital L.

Last week, I explained a little about the economic origins of genre in the demands of a reader not to waste their money on something they don't want to read.

But I didn't touch on Literature. You know what I'm talking about -- the books titled

a novel

The books published without a genre label are Literature, great and otherwise.

OK, so what's the formula for Literature -- and how do you tell Literature from Best Sellers?

Oh, yeah, "Best Seller" actually is a genre. In film, it's called HIGH CONCEPT. It's High Concept novels that get the promotion to become Best Sellers. I think I did a post here in this blog about High Concept. If anyone wants to discuss that, drop a note on this entry.

High Concept novels will break genre stereotypes and become market makers.

Literature can be LOW CONCEPT -- i.e. not aimed at the dubiously educated masses.

So, how do I define Literature?

Well, in short, I define Literature as Science Fiction.

Other people (perhaps somewhat misguided?) believe Science Fiction to be a genre. It isn't now and never has been a genre.

How can I (an SF/F writer?) say such a thing? It sounds so ridiculous!

Well - let's take a long historical look at what SF is, where it came from, and why what's happening now is happening.

Originally, some young kids (Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, E. E. Smith, the folks now known as First Fandom) started writing these stories. They'd read H. G. Wells and Doyle, and everything classical and everything there was and (being all geniuses, you know) they'd run out of stuff to read so they wrote some for each other basically.

Look at the list of First Fandom - see any women? Not till the 1950's or so (except married to male writers).

They were all just barely post-adolescent BOYS with a passion for things like Chess and Physics, Math and Chemistry (a lot were Chemists which is why I took my degree in Chemistry in order to become an SF writer). Science was both profession and hobby - fantasy was where they lived.

And so they wrote about young boys who saved the world, humanity, the galaxy, etc. by inventing something adults would never think of.

So the group of readers they attracted were young boys dreaming of being The Hero and rescuing the damsel from the Monster of the Week.

Publishers looked at who was buying this stuff and asked writers for more stuff like that because these kids had money for books.

Once publishers started pouring real money into making and distributing lots of copies -- well, the same dynamic I described as creating genres swung into action. In order not to lose money, the publishers had to LABEL this stuff and make sure that each one was exactly like the others only different.

(which is why Hollywood wants "exactly like everything else only different" -- which is what High Concept means essentially.)

So publishers, and the only really successful editors who could keep jobs a long time and get promotions -- successful editors! -- learned and memorized the harsh lesson, ONLY YOUNG BOYS READ SCIENCE FICTION because all the stories are just adolescent male fantasies for geekish kids.

Where did they get that idea? They were taught that idea by the writers and the readers.

The women who entered the field, Andre Norton in the 1940's and a few others, hid behind male bylines. In the 1950's (1955 I think) Marion Zimmer Bradley's short story Centaurus Changling revolutionized the field when it appeared in one of the magazines. I have it here somewhere.

It just so happened that Marion's actual given legal name is ambiguous -- spelled with the O. Only fans who knew her from conventions knew she was female.

She wowed everyone with a RELATIONSHIP story. What a shocking thing.

In the 1960's, the start of a burgeoning golden age of SF, "Adult Fantasy"allowed women to enter the field under female bylines. (notice C. J. Cherryh isn't CAROLYN Cherry). Even then, when you were writing SF you really should have had a male or initialed byline. I chose Jacqueline Lichtenberg out of sheer contrary cussedness.

Meanwhile, the geekish teens who started the field (Isaac Asimov was 19 when he sold his first story) had grown up -- and a new generation came along with college degrees in Literature (Gordon R. Dickson) and Psychology (Marion Zimmer Bradley) -- others who tried to bring Literature into SF creating the failed but huge New Age of SF sub-genre (dystopian, nihilistic, "everyman" themes).

The readers likewise grew up, but were way outnumbered by the new kids entering the field -- and face it, teens have more disposable income for books than parents with kids, cars, mortgages and pension funds.

So publishers could still pretend that SF readers were geekish teens ONLY.

Let's skip the 1970's of Feminist Polemics -- and the heaps of scorn on STAR TREK which was at that time a FAILED TV show of very VERY old fashioned SF. (it was 1930's SF)

That publisher's pretense broke down in the 1980s -- Katherine Kurtz's type of adult fantasy.

So in the 1980's I said at almost every convention:

"'Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote the Darkovan proverb that there's a hidden man in every woman and a hidden woman in every man. We are all both masculine and feminine. ' But we are (mostly) definitely male or female. As it happens, adolescent males love stories with a physical problem, physical action, and a physical resolution. Adolescent females love stories with a psychological problem, psychological action, and a psychological resolution. Adults like a balanced combination of the two - and that balanced combination is called Literature."

And though all my novels are set on other planets, or involve aliens relating intimately with humans, or in the case of Sime~Gen humans mutating into two parts which may as well be aliens, I write science fiction which is Literature."

One of my career objectives is to have in print a Sime~Gen novel (no one disputes that Sime~Gen is SF -- but it's ever so mixed-genre because it contains ESP as well as Magick) a Sime~Gen novel in every genre.

But today it isn't necessary anymore -- just look around you. Read some books labeled SF.

You can find an SF novel that contains the elements of any genre you name. Western, Mystery (hey don't miss THE DRESDEN FILES - a forensic wizard Private Eye), Action, Romance, -- you name it.

Now one good definition of Literature should be "contains all genres at once" -- if we use the definition of genre I suggested last week -- "what you leave OUT defines the genre" -- then Literature would be what you get when you include ALL GENRES.

Combine all colors of the spectrum and get WHITE.

Well, Science Fiction -- as writers on this blog are busy proving -- just naturally contains all genres. Therefore science fiction is not a genre - it's Literature.

Where did this distorted notion that science fiction is a genre come from? It's a historical artifact of the pure happenstance that several barely post-adolescent males started writing about the futurology of science - extrapolating scientific and technological impacts on human civilization.

But it never was a genre -- it's just that the first stories written were all of a certain type.

We got relegated to a straight-jacket formula for a few decades, but that was an artifact of the commercial publishing world, not a property of the essence of the Literature of The Imagination.

So today professors hold an annual Conference where they get Professor brownie points for reading papers to each other -- and they're all talking about SF/F. They call it the Conference ono the Fantastic and it's held in March every year.

If you don't think SF is Literature - go listen to them!

The fact is that the READER sophistication and general educational level has gone up considerably in the last 40 years. Genre is created by readers, not publishers. But maybe, with the advent of all these great TV shows that have SF/F elements, just maybe they won't be able to get readers to shove SF/F back into a single genre.

Maybe readers will be willing to admit they're reading Literature when they read SF/F.

Maybe not. After all, the pocketbook rules. I want to buy a book, I want to know it's got the stuff in it that pleases me -- but that it's all new. I want to read it over again - for the first time.


  1. Anonymous6:37 PM EST

    Excellent! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for reminding me of all the hours I spent in the used hardware store during the 50s waiting for the fantasy and science fiction to get dumped in the bookcase.

  3. Anonymous3:54 PM EST

    I don't know... There's nothing inherently wrong with labeling science fiction "genre fiction" is there? When I hear the word "literature" I inevitably think of all the dull, boring, dusty books that English professors force upon unwitting students... But when I hear the words "science fiction" or "genre fiction" I think of a good read all around--good action, good psychological delving, good characters, good setting--good everything.

    And I doubt anyone will ever label anything I write "literature". I'll just have to live with the words "genre fiction" tagged to my books I guess. :)

  4. Anonymous7:52 PM EST

    Great comments, and later I'll want to respond on genre after I've thought about it more. But for the moment I just want to react to "teens have more disposable income" than parents with bills, children, etc., with -- huh? Maybe teenagers have changed since I was one more than I thought they had. I never had any disposable income. I waited with eager anticipation twice a year for birthday and Christmas money, so I could buy books. At 35 cents for the typical paperback, a gift of $5.00 could buy me at least 12 books!! One of the great things about being middle-aged is that at last I can buy almost any book I want.