When people ask me what I write, I tell them speculative fiction. This is probably not a surprise to you, as that's what it says, down there in my profile.
Not everyone loves the term. Cat Valente just wrote a post about why she hates it. I actually agree with a lot of her concerns, even if I respond to them in different ways, so, hear me now and believe me later, this post is not me trying to start an internet slap fight with Cat. What this post is, is an explanation of why I use the term, and some musings on why I think definitions and terminology matter.
Another caveat: this is one of those definitions that's like, "I know it when I see it," or "x is what I point at when I say x."
So: when I say speculative fiction, I mean all fiction that is not mimetic. Fantasy, science fiction, magical realism (a term I happen to hate, and I'll get to that), horror, weird, new weird, old weird, slipstream, streampunk, et cetera, et cetera, and so on, and so on. I like the term, because in my head, it is inclusive. It is not hierarchical or snobby. It is not jealous, nor does it have connotations of appropriate rigor or literariness.
I use the term to describe my writing, because I write a lot of different things that fall under the non-mimetic umbrella: fantasy, weird, horror, and, dear God above, I am trying my hand at writing science fiction. Saying "I write speculative fiction" takes up fewer words. I don't particularly care what goes through people's heads when they hear those words (although, when I told my Mom I sold "Choose Your Own Adventure" to Fantasy, she did ask if it was the sort of magazine we could tell my grandparents about) other than hoping they will want to read what I wrote.
But the other reason I use the term speculative fiction is that I am also in academia. Now, I am lucky, in that I am currently at a place that has never told me that I could not teach a course or a text because it was not academically rigorous enough. My department invited me to give a reading, and the Chair sent around a letter of congratulations when I made my last sale. But I also know enough about academia to know this is lucky.
I know what it's like to be told we don't teach fantasy, even though Shakespeare and Spenser and Mary Shelley are on the syllabi. I hate magical realism as a literary term because as far as I am concerned, it's what gets used so that people do not have to admit that works of fantasy have won the Nobel prize (and other literary awards that do not look like shiny rocket ships.)
(Actually, I hate it for more than that, but that is a rant for a different day.)
And the terms matter - not just to critics, but to those of us who write in the area, make no bones about that - because it is those labels that connote respect. Or allow texts to be added to syllabi without criticism from the department, or threats that your scholarship won't be thought rigorous enough to get you tenure if you write your book on a comic. Works of magical realism win the Nobel, works of fantasy win the Hugo.
We fight about our labels, it matters to us where our books get shelved, because - and we all know this, we writers of speculative fiction, and fantasy, we scribblers of the impossible - because names have power. We want to feel like what we do matters, that people take it seriously, or at least don't dismiss it out of hand, the way we do when we sneer at the latest New York Times best seller that's about a man, usually a professor of English, who has a midlife crisis and fucks his gorgeous grad student, and realizes a Truth of Life because of it, and oh, how unrealistic is that. (Penispunk? can that be a genre, too?)
We want a name that levels the playing field, and makes us feel like maybe, just maybe, the only thing our writing will be judged on is its quality. I don't know a word that magical. For now, its existence is merely speculative.