I love speculative fiction.
Not just some of it, I mean all of it. The lowbrow and high fantasy, the new weird, space opera, swords & sorcery, fairy tales, slip stream, steampunk, magical realism, mythology, alternate history, urban fantasy, dystopian adventure, supernatural horror, and comic books (though DC could do with some spring cleaning.)
Now, that’s not an exhaustive list, and let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly coming out of the closet here. Nevertheless, it’s vitally important to write a love letter from time to time, lest the object of our affections suffers from neglect.
There is definitely a certain, let’s call it pressure, from literary intelligentsia sitting atop a Mount Olympus- one I imagine made of the preserved bones of Hemmingway, Shakespeare, and various other writers attained of posthumous godhood- to look upon speculative fiction writers in a kind of half-light.
A couple of years ago, while on vacation in Paris, I participated in a short story reading at the world famous, Shakespeare & Company book store. One of the other writers said of my story, Sweet Salvation, “I don’t get it. Why is the main character a gingerbread man?”
When I mentioned I worked on the story with my speculative fiction writers group, the entire room raised their eyebrows and released a collective, “Ohhhhhh, I see.” Regardless of any structural problems in the story that could and should be critiqued, very few speculative fiction writers would ask that question, and those who did would be interested in the underlying metaphor. However, they would most certainly “get it.”
To be precise, I am referring to a backhandedness directed at writers of spec-fic genre, more than the ideas that percolate out of them. Delia Sherman commented upon this phenomenon recently in her blog. The crux of her frustration being that literary writers can and do, snatch up the gold mined by genre writers like Mary Shelly, Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, or Jules Verne and their protégés, put said ore in their teeth and bask in admiration. “Ah, look how they shine!” says every literary critic everywhere.
This does wound, but in some cases it’s a self-inflicted injury. Carter Scholz said, “I have no hope at all that genre science fiction can ever again have any literary significance.” Margaret Atwood said that what she wrote was categorically not science fiction. Contributing to a blog about slip stream, John C. Mannone said, “There is no sense of wonder that is found in classic science fiction.”
Ouch. Now, in their direct context, I’m sure there was a rational behind these statements, but it comes off more as rationalization: "I'm not with those guys, I'm a writer, just like you!" See what happens when you don’t write a love letter?
This genre story has a happy ending. Recently, Geraldine Brooks, who co-edited the "Best American Short Stories 2011" with Heidi Pitlor had this to say: "I would like to raise a small, vigorously waving hand in favor of releasing more such stories (Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders) out of the genre ghetto and into the literary mainstream.”
Just this week I had a conversation with Victor Laville at the Center for Fiction for his book, the Devil in Silver, which is a serious genre bender if there ever was one. He said two things that should directly impact your writing, in the most positive way possible.
1) He’d tried writing this story as a straight realist, then he’d tried writing it as a horror (there actually is a demon in the book). Neither approach worked for him, so he decided to, “[G]o wherever the story took him,” and screw the distinctions. That included integrating pieces of non-fiction into the story, like a mini biography on Vincent Van Gogh’s life.
2) His first book had been a well-received autobiography that he was generally happy with. However, he’d found that the deep emotional underpinnings that he wanted to get at could only be truly expressed once he crossed the line into speculative fiction. How's that for a love letter?
In many ways, speculative fiction, a term coined by Bruce Sterling, is more relevant today than ever before. Speculative fiction now has to run even harder to keep ahead of the spinning blades of speculative fact. Warp drive may actually be possible. We’ve mapped the human genome, and fun fact: The military is working on cyber-cockroaches to be used as drones and first responders. The more we understand, the more ridiculous reality seems to be. With competing ideas of multiple worlds under serious discussion, dystopian environmental disasters around the corner, and a black president, isn’t it high time we put dragons back on the table? Kidding. Sort of.
What I’m saying is simple. Don’t stop writing, don’t get discouraged, don't become bitter, and don't turn the other cheek, because it's the tide that's turning. Barnes & Nobles on 54th and Lexington puts science fiction and fantasy front and center, the first thing you see when you get off the elevator. Avengers is one of the highest grossing films of all time. And yes, there are literary writers stealing from the genres, but imitation is flattery. There will be a changing of the guard on the awards panels and our fans and imitators will be the ones in the soft chairs. We’ll be the ones on the high school classics lists. It’s going to happen, you will be there, and I’ll do my best not to say, “I told you so.”
*I imagine the literary intelligentsia's sanctuary looking something like the Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal, constructed in the same way as the Great Wall of China. It's not just stones in them walls.