Genre Feature, Staff Post

In Defense of Speculative Fiction

I have to preface this essay—Yes, I’m calling it an essay rather than a blog post. You know that meme about Shrek being a “sophisticated film” and not a movie? Yeah, that— with four notes.

  1. Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way: I was in no way inspired to write this from the viewpoint of a bookseller. Our customers read speculative fiction. If you spend long enough at our store, if you take enough of our recommendations, odds are that you’ll leave with something speculative at some point. You kind of can’t help it with this group of staff members.
  2. I am writing this essay not as a reader but as a writer. I wear a few different hats at this job, but I am most often clad in my reader’s hat. Picture that hat in any way you like—I’m thinking it’s probably some kind of respectable beret— but I’m casting it off for the rest of this essay. I’ll be wearing the headgear of a speculative writer for the rest of our time together. Let’s pretend that my writer’s hat is one of those spangly, pointy, costume shop wizard caps. The ones with the silver stars and the cheap synthetic purple velvet. Imagine it to be so ridiculous that you’re almost too embarrassed to be seen in public with me. Imagine that, just by wearing my pointy hat, I’m making a scene.
  3. Now that you are all too aware that I am a writer of speculative fiction—my hat is very obvious, after all— I can reveal that this is an essay about writing. I’m hoping there is enough of a commonality between writing about reading and reading about writing that I can get away with this. I am, by no means, an authority on writing or the “writing life.” Spoiler: I’m a twenty-two year old with imposter syndrome and a B.A. in Creative Writing and Classical Studies. I am not an authority on much. I am, however, pretty experienced in dismissal and disrespect for writing “genre fiction.” Whether or not you find the essays of an unknown writer from Pennsylvania interesting is an entirely different matter. Most people don’t care to read essays about writing unless said essay is penned by a writer who has achieved a measure of success. I do not have much success, but I do have opinions and some experience. I’m going to try very hard not to embarrass myself.
  4. A quick definition of speculative fiction: Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term for fiction that covers genres and themes that don’t exist in reality, the current universe, or known history. Examples include science fiction, fantasy, and horror, among other genres and types.

There. We’ve dealt with all the housekeeping. You know where I’m coming from. Hopefully.
I have always written speculative fiction. I suspect that this is a direct consequence of my obsession with reading speculative fiction. Of course, I try to read widely. I’d be useless as a bookseller (and as a writer) if I didn’t. Virginia Woolf and Ursula K. Le Guin live next to each other on my bookshelf, for goodness sake. I like to think I’m well rounded. I’ve written “realistic fiction” before. It may even have been good.

But I am most comfortable in speculative worlds, in speculative stories.

“Realism” does not feel like home. If you are still reading, perhaps it is not your home either.

I’ve found that this discomfort flows both ways. The narrative claustrophobia I feel in suburban divorce epics and the fragile egos of ill-matched couples in city apartments written in straight-forward prose? Lots of “literary fiction” writers feel the same way when they come across a dragon.

But my dragons are less respectable than the suburbs. Apparently. My dragons are “escapist.” My dragons are unrealistic.

Really, Karen? My time-warping, teleporting, telepathic dragons are unrealistic?! Well, hell. That is NEWS TO ME…

Perhaps I would have less of an issue with this if we could all just admit that different people go for different genres. We all have different tastes, we like what we like. If you hate spaceships, dragons, magic: that’s okay! We’ll stay far away from fantasy, from science fiction, from the speculative. You don’t have to write in those genres! And if I’m sick to death of one too many stories about some guy cheating on his pregnant wife with a college student? Well, there are any number of books to avoid. I just won’t write that kind of story. Alas…

It is expected that the “serious” writer will read and write “serious” fiction. Serious fiction deals with matters of the human condition: birth, growth, feelings, justice and injustice, death, various social constructs like gender and race, and the myriad existential crises and moral concerns that are synonymous with being a person. And as we all know, genre fiction has simply never touched on anything this serious. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was pure escapist trash that totally never even considered the effects that sex and gender have on a given society. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy certainly never considered the consequences of systemic racism and ecological injustice. The Golden Compass was just some silly children’s book about animal companions and talking bears: no deeper themes of growth, identity, and religion there.

All those “respectable” writers— Mary Shelley, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Jorge Luis Borges— they never wrote speculative fiction. They transcend genre. They’re getting at the meat and the marrow of humanity and their respective moments. There’s nothing dirty, nothing fantasy or speculative or god forbid genre, about them. They just have imagination! The monsters, the myths, the dystopian societies, the magic: it’s all symbolism. It’s political! These are nice, reputable writers. Literary writers. You won’t find them in those trashy mass-market paperbacks with the pulpy primary-colored covers. They’re all shelved in the fiction section, in the classics section.

They’re the real writers. Not like you and your fairies and your steampunk and your alien robots.

By the way, if you don’t stop writing about those damn dragons you’ll never be a real artist. You’ll never be literary.

When people tell me that they see speculative fiction as a frivolity, as a lesser form, as something flippant, I have to laugh. I am deadly serious, I always have been. I have an anxiety disorder and I’ve read a godawful amount of Nietzsche. How could anyone ever see what I write and call it anything but serious? My writing is like that scene from Gladiator except it’s me in all black, listening to Florence + The Machine screaming, “ARE YOU NOT YET DEPRESSED?”

As a speculative writer in “literary” fiction workshops, I’ve received a fair amount of blowback. I’m not talking about fair criticism: my sentence structure, my plot inconsistencies, my failure to get the meanings in my head onto the page. All of those are helpful critiques, a useful kind of pain, like the aches in one’s legs after a long run. The twinges of constructive criticism are often the greatest gift that you can get from a fellow writer. And for what it’s worth, I choose to workshop these pieces of my heart. I choose to lay myself bare in front of my peers in the hopes that they will make me and my art better. To study writing, especially in an academic context, is pretty much a guarantee that one must learn to workshop. I think I’ve learned to take the criticisms rather well. I’ve never cried during the critique, at any rate.

But always, always there are those writers who tell me:

“Your writing is beautiful but your work is just too weird”

and

“I love the realism so much more than your silly dragons,”

And

“So, like, I know the dragons are a metaphor for something but I really didn’t like it,”

or

“I feel that, in fantasy, you lose the deep philosophical meditations that you usually get in fiction,”

And

“I really don’t like fantasy or science fiction but this reminded me of Neil Gaiman/Philip K. Dick/Ray Bradbury! So I guess that’s okay.” And it takes everything in me not to say, “Where, pray tell, do we shelve Neil Gaiman/Philip K. Dick/ Ray Bradbury? Please tell me where you’re buying your books because last I checked—and believe me, I see the ibid screen in my dream life at this point—we shelve Neil Gaiman/Philip K. Dick/Ray Bradbury in the FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION SECTIONS respectively.

There are the writers who tell me that the poetry of my prose doesn’t match my subject matter. The writers who haven’t read fantasy since childhood tell me that they can’t suspend their belief in the grounding of reality for the five seconds it would take to accept a dragon in the middle of the highway. They struggle to believe there could ever be “sense” in dragons who live in a world written like this one we inhabit. They need an explanation meticulously sprawled across my narrative of the providence of these dragons, the un-reality of those dragons. And wouldn’t it be a much more interesting piece if it turned out that the main character was actually driven mad with grief over the death of her best friend/mother/father/childhood dog and the dragon was actually just a hallucination, just a coping mechanism?

You can’t have dragons in the real world, silly girl. You can’t run away to fairyland and still get to call yourself an artist.

Now let’s all go around the circle and laud George Saunders until we puke, just to prove we still read “real literature.” Let’s lick the blubber off Melville because chasing a whale is a better metaphor for the futility of man’s search for meaning than a fire-breathing lizard could ever be. For a palate cleanser, let’s discuss Shakespeare, who famously never wrote about a single fairy. We have to wash the contamination of “genre” from our literary group, because god forbid we ever be associated with something so lowbrow.

And perhaps I’m getting heated because I’m really tired of being measured against Tolkien when nobody ever has another point of reference and I don’t even write epic fantasy. I could be just a little fed up with the fact that “literary” writers never seem to understand that they’re writing in a “genre” just the same as the rest of us.

It could be that I’m upset because I stopped writing speculative fiction for a few years there, when I couldn’t take another workshop of getting called a “freak.” And as soon as I locked the dragons away? Well, it turns out that I’m not actually a bad writer at all. People just hate the weird.

Or maybe I’m upset because I’m tired of only ever really feeling like a speculative writer when I’m in a workshop with a bunch of wannabe Franzens. When I was studying Plato’s Alcibiades I in college, because believe it or not speculative fiction writers actually do read the classics, my professor made an argument that the only time one really feels and becomes the “self” is when one’s selfhood is somehow constrained. Socrates places philosophical constraints on Alcibiades, Socrates makes Alcibiades aware of himself as a self to be aware of.

I don’t like to define myself or my work by the hurt or the constraint and the preconceived notions. I’m not a speculative fiction writer because “serious” people give me hell for it. I am most myself when I am comfortable. The truest self that I can be is the self unconstrained. I choose to believe that I became a speculative fiction writer as a child, when we all read fantasy and dwelled in the realms of the unreal. I never saw the sense in growing out of it, not fully. Nobody who likes fiction, who writes fiction, wants to live wholly in the real world anyway. We’re all of us just playing with different toys in the same sandbox. We’re doing our best with our literary inheritances. We learn to write from imitation. We take what we admire, we discard what we don’t find useful. Writers are thieves and all that jazz. If you read enough craft guides, you’ll see about a thousand cliched iterations of that sentiment. I don’t think of myself as a thief, though. I think of myself as a descendent. My speculative fictions come from a deep well of admiration and love.

As I’m writing this, I’ve realized how truthful that bit about literary inheritances is. I think I’ve drafted my own version of an essay that I might as well have tattooed across my chest. The literary daughter is writing her way through the same old sorry situations as her literary mother. The essay is called My Dinner With Persephone by Catherynne M. Valente. And through some bizarre twist of fate, it was first published on a blog about ten years ago.

“There’s this process by which anything girls love becomes disdainful, cliched, sad, in a way that the things boys love never do. Boys can love pulp SF and westerns and comic books, and they become greater, they become epics and serious films and graphic novels. But for every girl who ever loved Sylvia Plath in high school, for every one who watched that crocus of a girl slipping away into the earth and saw herself, there is a invisible choir of derisive laughter, there is an instant satire of that love- just another one of those sad, dirty girls, another goth girl who thinks she’s special, how can anyone bear that emo poetry, how can anyone take a girl seriously who loves Morgan le Fay and Persephone and ankh-wearing Death, just like all the other girls?”

When people compliment my writing, I tell them “Thanks, I learned from the best.” The best in question is a speculative fiction writer. This is my literary tradition. I come from a line of queer and feminist speculative writers. I write as a devotee to the pantheon of sad, weird girls who love tarot cards and spaceships and Virginia Woolf in equal measure. I write as a fairy girl, a disaster bride, and out of a deep dissatisfaction with the fact that there are no dragons who will come to take me away. I write from the belief that the only way to tell the truth is by substantially altering reality. I believe in complicated forms and beautiful poetry about aliens and parallel universes and fairyland and magic. God, I believe in writing about magic.

Because sometimes a dragon, or maybe a wyvern, really does just show up out of the blue. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl is really a photograph of a teenager in a pink and grey hoodie who just bought her first writer’s notebook. She’s standing in the middle of a bookshop she’ll work at in about a decade, watching a real-life fantasy writer giving a reading. And she has just decided that she is going to be a writer. A writer like this one. She’s going to wear blue dresses and she will read in a clear and commanding voice. She will write about magic with the hope that, above all else, it will say something a fraction as meaningful about being human as what this woman is reading. There’s already a kind of prophecy in there somewhere: Take Me Up, Thy Mother’s Sword.

All this to say: anyone who doesn’t like it can go to hell. I’m going to pet the dragons.

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