Tag Archives: genre ghettos

Magic (might be) where you find it


I have been ruminating about Lynnell Edwards’ question on the Red Hen Press blog, and wanted to post my thoughts here.

I don’t have a policy on vampires. I have read beautiful, strong, amazing prose in a variety of genres, including “literary realism.” I haven’t read Twilight or Harry Potter, but I have read Lord of the Rings. And though I don’t want to compare a television show to a novel, I do love “Buffy,” because the writing is excellent, the characters rich and complicated, and the issues they deal with (ethical, moral, metaphysical) are important and paradoxically what I would consider “real.” These are some of the same characteristics I would look for in a good novel or story.

Different genres have different sets of expectations from the readers, and publishers. It can be hard to run a workshop or a class with a mix of genres–if only because other writers, leaders or teachers aren’t necessarily familiar with all genres. That can make things tricky, especially when students are just learning how to operate within a workshop setting.

One problem is that writing students (and readers in general) may be reacting to having been fed more visual media or media tie-in books than original books within the fantasy and science fiction genres. But as small children, most of us read plenty of fantastical things. Dr. Seuss, Harold and the Purple Crayon are a couple things that come to mind. It makes me sad that so many adult readers lose access to what is magical in literature by way of shedding childhood and heading into the “real world.”

Ursula LeGuin has some interesting things to say about the genre silos, and the “literary” biases against fantasy. If this problem interests you, check out her essay collection, Cheek By Jowl. I find a lot of bias in academe against work that is other than literary realism. Magical realism is acceptable, usually, and a few other lucky or pushy writers who have slipped with their novels into the list of acceptable, despite the fact that they write science fiction. I am thinking of Margaret Atwood. She has protested long and loudly enough to have convinced many readers (who might disdain other works of “science fiction”) that she’s not writing it. If something can be translated or packaged as allegorical, it “transcends” the genre. (Even the word “transcend” bothers me here.)

Overall, I don’t care where my students aim to publish their work. If it’s good, it’s good. I strive to help students learn about what I think makes fiction work, what makes it strong, what might make it transcend whichever box it ends up being placed in by a publisher.

Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Juliet:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet…”

And: There’s a Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick’s novels. So I guess he is another who slipped through the cracks.

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On “the fantastika”

I just read an interview with Serbian writer, Zoran Zivkovic posted on SF Signal. In particular, I love the distinction he makes between genre fiction and “the fantastika” the which is excerpted here:

SF SIGNAL: “I read in an interview that you consider yourself a writer “without any prefixes.” Why do you think some readers, critics, and other writers have biases against fiction that are typically labeled as genre or might include elements of the fantastika?”

ZIVKOVIC: “These are two very different things. The fantastika is a noble and ancient art. (A much broader term, by the way, than “fantasy.”) According to some studies in literary history, about 70 percent of everything that has ever been written in the last 5,000 years, ever since literacy came about, belongs to one of many forms of the fantastika. Some readers might not like it, that’s quite legitimate, but I don’t see how any serious critic could have biases against it. This would mean denying that the vast majority of the world literary heritage has any value. As for genre fiction, it refers to products of the contemporary publishing industry. Since any industry is primarily about making a profit, it’s no wonder that their products don’t have much art; art by its very nature does not go along with popularity. And only popularity, mass readership, paves the way to profit. Alas, the more popular usually means the more trivial, less artistic.”

There’s so much importance placed on the boxes where writing is published…and so much distain for the genre ghettos, that it’s refreshing to be reminded of the long traditions that existed before Barnes and Nobel needed simple shelving instructions.