Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Speculation and name-calling

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.


  1. I think you just became my hero (and not simply because you are a sword weilding, Buffy quoting, Princess Bride aficionado) -- for the term 'penispunk.' I nearly spit out my coffee, which would've been bad for my laptop.

    Names do matter. They hold a certain power, certainly. But I've always struggled with categories, because I always see the grey -- where one thing can fit multiple places. So, from a writer standpoint, I love the term speculative fiction.

    I don't think genre should matter, a lot of the time. Just because something is fantasy doesn't mean it's not well written or full of truth. I know that it isn't always taken seriously by award committees and the like -- and it bugs me. But that's neither here nor there, I suppose.

    I once took a course in undergrad that taught a few graphic novels. We also read fairytales. It was one of the best courses I've ever taken. I think when people discount something because of genre, it's a lose-lose.

    Anyway, very thought-provoking post. I will try and read Cat's post later, when I have more time.

  2. You should absolutely read Cat's post. I recommend reading her blog generally, as I recommend reading pretty much everything she writes. My friend Megan also wrote a very interesting piece:

  3. Kat, I have Cat's blog linked on mine, I believe. I'm going to double-check, but I'm pretty sure I do. Also, I really enjoyed your friend Megan's post. I will comment on it shortly. Thank you for sharing! :-) ~Ali

  4. Very interesting thoughts. The question of genre boundaries and the legitimacy of what is called "genre" in the literary world has always bugged me (I've spent a lot of time in academia, though I'm not currently active there). Cathrynne Valente makes some excellent points, but it's certainly not all that can be said on the subject.

  5. Juliette - this is definitely not all I think can or should be said on the subject, either, but I love the last part of your comment, because it gets to what I think is really important. That any time we try to define things in a field like literature, it ought to be a discussion, with room for fluidity and thought, rather than a series of "this is this and that is that" statements of exclusivity.