Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What sort of stories do we tell

After the longlist for the Booker Prize was announced this week, my friend Damien wrote a fairly strongly worded post, bemoaning the lack of speculative fiction authors on the list. Megan wrote this follow-up. I agree with elements of both: I would love to see a work of acknowledged speculative fiction on a list like the Booker Longlist, but at the same time, I feel that the prize has already gone to works of speculative fiction.

The careful readers among you will notice a missing word in the second half: acknowledged. And that, for me, is the key issue.

I joke, quite often, that the category of Magical Realism was invented so that no one had to admit that a speculative fiction writer had won the Nobel Prize. And it's not just Marquez - try Lessing, or Saramago, or Heaney. But if you look on the bookshelves, these authors, like those on the Booker list, are shelved with Literature, not fantasy.

In Young Adult literature, the genre categories don't seem to matter. What is arguably the biggest prize in YA lit went to a work of speculative fiction this year: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. As far as I can tell the award goes fairly regularly to speculative fiction, and no one seems to make a fuss.

I'm not sure what causes this difference. Perhaps because in "kids' books" we expect fantastical elements? Well, maybe, but then I'm not sure what people are reading that makes them not expect fantastical elements in works of literature for adults. Stories that are generally considered to be great works of Literature - the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, The Tale of Genji - all of these have speculative elements. The presence of ghosts and gods doesn't make any of these stories less great.

I describe what I write as speculative fiction. Not because I am arrogant enough to think that I'm getting on the longlist for some fabulous Literary prize someday, and I need to categorize myself as something other than a writer of Fantasy, but because I truly believe that the truest genre division is between mimetic fiction, and speculative fiction. And really, I'm promiscuous in my literary tastes. I don't care on which shelf I find my favorite book. But I do wish that people would realize that the category on the shelf is not an arbiter of the quality of the writing that is shelved there.


  1. Yes, exactly. I do have to say that the different zones of a bookstore can be bewildering for people venturing out of their normal havens. There are so many reasons for why someone who loves AMERICAN GODS might like to try PERFUME, or for someone who got bowled over by SEA OF POPPIES to give AIR a try... but how will they know where to go?
    I suppose that's where the whole matching books with souls comes in ;)
    Personally, my latest favourite cross-genre pairings have been THE MANUAL OF DETECTION with GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL with THE PRESTIGE, and SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS with anything Kelly Link.

  2. The idea of matching books with souls is one of the reasons why I love asking friends for recommendations, and why I always feel so happy when I can give a book to someone.