I’m a little late to the game on this, but on the blog for my Hugo Book Club, I posted about a recent essay making the rounds on the internet:
As I’m sure we’re all aware, SF/F/H catches a lot of shit from fans of “literary” type fiction, who call genre stuff juvenile and silly (consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which cannot deign to be shelved with the sciffy stuff on the shelves at most bookstores, and so is instead found crammed in among the “Literature”).
So in an attempt to bridge what he sees as an artificial divide between the two, Daniel Abraham (a genre writer) penned a hilarious love letter from Genre to Mainstream.
Here’s an excerpt:
You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet, Mary Shelly and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.
You can read the whole thing on SF Signal here. It’s fucking hilarious.
As you can imagine, a discussion in the comments ensued, so I decided to post a follow up to this which I figured I would post here, too.
I’m new(ish) to this whole debate (I honestly have nothing against mainstream stuff, but it’s just not something that pushes my buttons so I don’t seek it out), just like I’m new(ish) to the world of publishing, so I’m not quite sure how all the politics plays out. As such, I’d like to see if anyone else wants to weigh in on my opinion on this mess, since I’m making extremely broad strokes here and I’d like to be corrected if I’m way off base about any of this.
That being said, here’s my comment:
So I was trying to stay neutral in the post because this is one of those impossible questions that makes a fun point to argue.
I would say, by and large, the distinction comes mostly from readers (since major publishing houses for “mainstream” books have “genre” subsidiares beneath them. For example, Tor Books are a subsidiary of Macmillan (which does everything from publishing things like Nature and Scientific American to children’s books to textbooks), so each wing has to pull it’s weight for the benefit of the entire company, which means publishing things that will sell.
Based on recent conversations and things I’ve read, I can safely say that every single editor wants to publish the books that knock their socks off – the problems come in with accepting manuscripts at the marketing level (they know editors fall in love easily, so THEY MUST BE STOPPED). This actually works in FAVOR of the genre markets because it’s got the built it audience that makes marketing inherently easier (including geeks that love to geek out about sub-genre distinctions, so they’ll buy ANYTHING that tickles their ghost-pig-PoMo-punk obsession). It’s harder to sell to mainstream audiences because those core markets (to me) actually seem LESS likely to a given book that comes out.
And this really gets to who these publishing companies THINK their readership is – and let’s face it, kids that like SF/F/H seem to be a lot more likely to continue reading SF/F/H stuff as adults, not only because it’s escapist and appeals to folks that are unhappy as kids, who are more likely to become obsessive geeks when they’re older, but also because it’s something kids have to WORK to do – we’re forced to read mostly mainstream stuff as kids, and you have to go out of your way to read genre stuff because it was hardly ever assigned (unless you had awesome teachers). And any kid that’s going out of their way to do something like that is gonna likely keep on doing that when they’re older.
Therefore, since it’s harder to market to a mainstream audience, I would guess the marketers a lot pickier about buying books from new mainstream authors because unless can get a movie deal, is a shoe-in for the Oprah book club, or appeals to the geeks on the opposite end of the spectrum (the literary snobs), it’s not going to sell well because no one’s gonna be paying attention to it.
So this brings me back around to what I was saying: it’s all because of the readers. And the most vocal factions for these arguments come from geeks from both the literary AND the genre sides.
I’m painting broad generalizations here, but I think a large part of this perceived snobbery is because genre stuff is more visible (and subject to a lot of Hollywoodization), which goes back to marketing. But this time it’s Hollywood marketing, which is focused on making what’s gonna put the most butts in chairs, which are summer blockbusters with lots of explosions. SF/F/H are what make the prettiest movies (and the most widely-appealing to general audiences). Look at Will Smith’s career – he wanted to make a successful movie, so he looked at trends for the best-grossing movies. What did they mainly consist of? SHIT WITH GENRE ELEMENTS.
On the other hand, most “mainstream” Oscar-caliber movies (the kind we would consider literary, and we’ll just pretend that “Oscar-caliber” means something for now), are mostly not adapted works from literary books – they’re constructed exclusively for the screen (because writing a glorious screenplay is a completely different skill than writing a glorious book). This is why there’s an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: because it’s fucking hard to do well. I would imagine this would let the supposed “literature snobs” turn their nose up at the most public face of genre: movies.
This doesn’t mean that genre folks are exempt from the assholery going around. There are plenty of people that dislike mainstream stuff because they were forced to read it as kids and never identified with anything quite as much as they did genre stuff (::raises hand::). People hang their identity on the things that define them as kids (and I have to say, I’ve rarely met anyone that read genre stuff enough to care about this kind of debate who started reading it when they were adults). And when you feel like people are mocking something you care deeply about, you get defensive. And I have to say, I get pretty fucking defensive around a certain coworker of mine who makes fun of my love of SF/F/H by pronouncing she would never deign to read a book with a spaceship on the cover, because, like, OMG, she would, like, DIE (and she meanwhile loves Transformers and Jurassic Park).
So we can blame it on the geeks.
Oh crap. That’s us.
P.S. the title is from The National song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby” and has nothing to do with any pedantry attempted on my part.