Thoughts that went through my head while listening to a panel. [Not necessarily what the panel said themselves, but what I took from it.]
June 8th saw the British Science Fiction Association’s AGM, held at Imperial College, London, a great venue in the midst of the museum district that we’ve used before. It was a good day out, the sun shone, unlike the downpour I left at home, and the programme was fun. The actual AGM took exactly half an hour. The rest of the day was a mini convention where we share organisation and content with the Science Fiction Foundation. The guests of honour were Juliet McKenna and Dr Rachel Livermore. And the first panel discussed the movement of some ‘literary’ writers into SF. Should we welcome them, or not?
I figure a lot of you will immediately recall the SF community reaction to Margaret Attwood’s assertion that The Handmaid’s Tale, now also a TV series, wasn’t SF, because she didn’t write about ‘talking squids in space’. Which did neither her nor SF any favours.
But setting aside the question, what is SF, what the !?! is ‘literary’?
Excellence? But there’s excellent crime, romance, and SF. Stories where plot, character, setting produce multiple layers of meaning? Surely, ditto, and I’m sure you can all name your own examples. So in the end there doesn’t seem to be any clear criteria, other than each person’s perception, or maybe where bookstores shelve things? And the mindset of people who maybe haven’t actually read much SF. Who ‘know what they like’.
Sadly, ‘literary’ writers who have strayed into SF often haven’t made themselves any more popular than Ms Attwood, and with good reason. Too often they have come in with the preconceived idea that SF is ‘less’, more lightweight, and will take less effort. So they don’t read what’s already out there and don’t realise what they think is original is actually rehashing common tropes. Or their world building falls short of the depth SF readers have come to expect. In other words they don’t respect the genre, and it shows in the results.
But then, to be fair, this happens in reverse as well. Some respected SF writers have tried their hands at other genres without putting in the hard research needed. I suspect you can name your own examples here too.
[Though I’m told, and intend to see, that Adam Roberts’ ‘By the Pricking of Her Thumb’ is a great example of doing it right!]
But back to the discussion. The moral of this story seems to be: if we want outsiders to accept more SF then shouldn’t we welcome them, both as readers and writers, rather than turn our backs on them and choose to stay isolated?
Though a polite reality check is surely allowable – ‘Yes, very nice, but did you read X, or Y, before you wrote such a similar plot/heroine/setting?’
And perhaps we also need to work harder to counteract that old image that SF, or at best hard SF, equals white/male/scientist/ the ideas are more important than the writing, a stereotype that may be partly responsible for the bias on both sides.
But look on the bright side, our genre is more accepted than it was, added to university courses and even GCSE set texts. [Even if media popularity doesn’t always help as much as we’d like.]
Hmm. So the split between SF and literary acceptability has actually narrowed? But maybe we now need to look at the splits we ourselves could be creating; I sometimes think there’s a bigger schism between SF and the LGBT label than between us and the ‘literary’ shelf. Example: the poor publisher of my own novel, ‘Ashamet’, thought it was ‘literary’ enough to enter it for an American fantasy award. To be told it was ‘a very good book’ but should be labelled LGBT, not fantasy. I’ve come across some seriously good speculative fiction marooned in the same boat.
Move over, ‘literary’ world? Is the SF world in danger of shutting people out too, in a way very similar to the one they’ve objected to?
Terry Jackman began writing nonfiction, more by accident than design, before eventually tackling fiction. These days she runs the BSFA Orbit groups and edits-for-hire between writing and the day job. She also runs the occasional convention workshop, and is strange enough she actually enjoys moderating panels.