Lois Tilton July 31st, 2006
So much is it disrespected that people outside genre will go to great lengths to disassociate themselves from it, so much that Ansible regularly features the disclaimers of various Literary Personages: “My work isn’t science fiction, it’s [perfect description of science fiction].”
Those of us within genre tend to object that the various Literary Personages are just being fatheads. If science fiction includes fiction set in the future, then any literature set in the future must by definition be science fiction â€“ right? But this, as simple as it might seem to us, isn’t at all what the Literary Personages mean when they declare: “My work isn’t science fiction.” And it is no use insisting, as we often do, that the Literary Personages are only displaying their ignorance of actual science fiction, that they don’t understand science fiction is exactly what they are doing when they write a work of realistic fiction set in the future, without, say, any talking squids. Because it is not the subject matter of the work they are referring to. What they are actually saying is: “My work isn’t crap.” And the unspoken premise is quite clear: because science fiction is crap. Because genre fiction is crap. No one respects it.
The genres even disrespect themselves, renaming themselves, attempting to distance themselves from the genre labels. Science fiction is SF, it’s Speculative Fiction â€“ but never “sci-fi,” which is the term we reserve for crap. Fantasy keeps adopting trendy new labels, trying them on for fit: magic realism, or fabulism, or slipstream fiction â€“ anything but That Genre Crap. So we have “genre romance” vs Jane Austen; we have “genre fantasy” vs Italo Calvino. One is crap, the other is genius, or maybe “literature.”
It seems absurd, though, to talk about “genre fantasy.” If fantasy is a genre, then wouldn’t that just mean “fantasy fantasy?” And isn’t the notion of a non-genre fantasy simply contradictory? But the term “genre” has come to mean something entirely different from a story’s subject matter. A story’s subject matter may fall under the heading of fantasy, but now it must be further categorized as genre or non-genre fantasy. “Genre” is what Jane Austen doesn’t write. Genre is not-literary. And in the eyes of many, genre is crap.
What exactly does “genre” mean in this sense? Just what is it that distinguishes the genre from the non-genre story when their subject matter may be exactly the same? This is the sort of question that seems to call for Damon Knight’s ostensive formulation: Genre is what we mean when we point to it.