I give a crap about genre (especially science fiction)

Yesterday, Jeff VanderMeer wrote about how he doesn’t give a crap about genre. Jeff wrote a wonderful book called Booklife which is among the finest guides to managing a writing career that I’ve ever come across. I’ve never met Jeff in person (although we both attended the recent Capclave) but his reputation proceeds him and I hesitate to disagree with him… but I will.

Jeff writes:

I find it more and more alien and odd that someone’s taste in fiction could be determined by whether or not there’s a dragon in it or magic or whether it’s set in the future or not.

The human mind naturally puts things into categories and trying to see things otherwise seems to me to work against our natural tendencies. People see movies because they are comedies and avoid movies because they are slashers (or vice versa). Some people prefer musicals while others prefer plays. There are baseball fans and there are footballs fans. These preferences are part of what make up the person and genre merely acts as a guide for identifying something that a person will potentially like.

I grew up on science fiction and when I want to be entertained, when I want to recapture my childhood joy, when I want to experience a sense of wonder, it is to science fiction that I go. In fact, I don’t like when people refer to the genre as “sci-fi” or “s.f.” or especially “speculative fiction”. The latter term seems to me to be an attempt to sound literary. The truth is, I don’t care if science fiction is perceived as literary or not. I’m not even certain I know what “literary” means, but I see it as a property of fiction, a kind of continuum, as opposed to a genre, which is a classification. Good science fiction can be literary: Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside are two excellent novels that come to mind in this vain. But even if a story does not contain literary aspects, so what? I enjoy “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov because it is a good science fiction story. I reread the FOUNDATION novels because of the sense of wonder they instill in me. I read a Michael A. Burstein story or a Robert J. Sawyer novel because they are examples of science fiction done very well. I read Jack McDevitt science fiction mysteries because I adore the puzzle he presents.

Science fiction set my preferences for a specific genre and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, and I think that is something that is important to learn. I’m not a huge fan of high fantasy for instance. The fact that someone is classified as high fantasy helps me make decisions on how to prioritize what I read. Genre, therefore, provides a useful function to the reader, by helping them align their tastes to what is available on bookshelves.  Of course my taste in fiction is determined by whether or not it is set in the future, or there is time travel involved, or spaceships, or parallel universes. Why shouldn’t it be? This is how I grew up.

That is not to say that I don’t venture outside my genre. I’ve read extensively in science and history. And I’ve forced myself to read many of the so-called classics. But the key word there is “forced”. In some cases, I fell in love with the books (anything by John Steinbeck or Mark Twain, for instance). In other cases, I couldn’t stand what I read (Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens). In the former cases I was surprised, but in the latter, I was merely turned off.

I know what I like to read and I read as much of it as I can manage. I enjoy the tropes, there is comfort in the familiarity of the genre. It makes me feel good when I read science fiction. And whether or not genre fiction has anything of value to say about the current human condition–well, that’s entirely up to what the individual reader brings to the table.

The bottom line: my life is better because of science fiction.


  1. Good posting, James. For me, I’d put it this way. While I want my stories to have strong characters, settings, plot, etc., to me I want that sense of wonder that comes from some central idea. I don’t necessarily need a dragon or magic or for it to be in the future, but I want something speculative in it, some central idea, to draw me to, and into, the story. Some non-genre stories do this, but SF & fantasy do so by their very nature.

  2. To each his own. I don’t think there’s any right way to approach this, as a reader or writer. I just know what I think right now, what’s right for me.



  3. Larry, as a writer, I generally write stories that I would find entertaining as a reader. To date, with one exception, they have all been science fiction. The one exception is a straight mystery, still something that would be considered genre fiction.

    Jeff, I think you’re right and the closest a person can come to a “right approach” in my mind is by reading what you enjoy. Of course, the unstated premise here is that you read for pleasure. There are other reasons to read and that skews my argument somewhat.


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