What’s in a Genre?

If you’ve never seen it, there’s this illustrated Map of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley  floating around the internet. It’s a fascinating examination of how the spec-fic genres have developed over the years, when and where major sub-genres have originated, and how all of it ties back to basic ancient principles of wonder, terror, and curiosity. Take some time and examine it.

I’ve been thinking a bit about genre of late, in that I’ve always considered myself someone who can write across multiple genres, but has chosen to confine myself to the broad umbrella of science fiction and fantasy. I still think this is true, but I’ve noticed that most of my recent sales have been fantasy stories and that, as a general rule, I find writing fantasy a bit easier than writing science fiction. I don’t think this is because science fiction is inherently harder to write than fantasy (I really don’t think any genre, from so-called ‘literary’ or upscale fiction all the way down to bodice rippers, are really much ‘easier’ to do well than any other), so I’m starting to wonder if perhaps my aptitude lies more in the direction of the fantastic.

My personal quandaries aside, this thread of conversation ultimately leads me to the following question: What is Fantasy’s literary contribution?

I am a firm believer that all genres of writing have something significant to contribute to the canon of literature. Everything from Westerns to Thrillers to Historical Fiction has their shining works that sum up all that a genre can do to illuminate the human condition. They are entertaining first and foremost, of course (all literature should be, ultimately), but they also have a certain special quality that allows them to explore things in a way other genres cannot. Science Fiction’s contribution, of course, is obvious – it postulates our potential future and the risks and benefits thereof. It looks forwards and outwards while most other genres look backwards and inwards. The importance of works like 1984, Brave New World, 20,000 League Under the Sea, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Neuromancer is practically self-evident.

Our Laboratory, the Castle Black

Our Laboratory, the Castle Black

What about Fantasy, though? It doesn’t look forward, really, but rather sideways. It doesn’t imagine possible futures, it imagines alternate presents or pasts. Worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth and Westeros are clearly fictional, fantastic, unreal. What can we learn from looking at a place that never was and never will be? I remember writing a fantasy story for a writing workshop in my undergraduate years and, in conference, the professor asked me ‘why don’t you just set it in the real world? Why fairies and magic?’ She considered such writing to be beneath my talents and a waste of my time – she said so in as many words. I struggled then to answer her clearly; I hadn’t fully considered it. I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then, and not because I’ve ever really considered writing upscale fiction (I frankly don’t own enough turtlenecks or tweed blazers for that), but rather because I think it’s important for any artist (though I use the term reluctantly, preferring storyteller) to have an honest conversation with themselves about the literary merit of their work. It’s okay if what you’re writing isn’t some kind of literary masterpiece, but I think it’s important that you know, one way or another, if it does and whether or not is can.

 EDIT: The Internet ate this second half for some reason. Here’s me writing it *again*.

If your writing or your story can, shouldn’t it?

Oddly enough, to explain what fantasy does is probably best explained by science. In a scientific experiment, it is common to attempt to eliminate any exterior factors that will compromise the results. So, for instance, if you want to know if a material is toxic to plants, you try to eliminate all other environmental factors to really determine if it is or not. To do otherwise gives you a less definitive result. Fantasy operates much the same way. If your goal is to experiment upon society or politics or the human heart or what-have-you, then setting the story in the real world creates a degree of interference. Our own experiences get muddled up inside of them, our own opinions about our own world (and the confirmation bias that accompanies them) make it hard to view the story from an objective standpoint. Fantasy is ideal, however, for exploring such issues in a kind of sterile environment – a world apart from our own, yet with symbolic resonance with our own experience. It is in this sense, then, that both science fiction and fantasy are known as speculative. Now, this doesn’t mean that this is the only way to explore the human condition (obviously not), but it is a powerful way, and a way that is important. Again, not every fantasy story can or does do this, but I would suggest that the best of the genre does and must.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 3, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I tend to think of fantasy and sci-fi as genres that let us examine our own culture through a different lens. “Sideways” is a good way to put it. But while we may not be able to break out of our own perspective in the real world, these kinds of fiction can recontextualize our world, culture, and society in a way that helps us do so.

    Not to say it HAS to do these things. No story HAS to necessarily have a greater aim than just being enjoyed by someone, even if it’s just the writer. But it can, and that can be as important as any great story from any other genre that traditionally gets more respect.

  2. Great post. Very in depth. I had never seen the History of Science Fiction map before; just spent the better part of fifteen minutes traversing its avenues. Very cool!

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