Mind Meld: The Boundaries Between Literary and Genre Fiction

mindmeldEditor’s note: For years, the essential sci-fi blog SF Signal published Mind Meld, a regular column that featured a monthly roundtable discussion of the tropes, themes, politics, and future of genre fiction. On the sad occasion of the closure of that site, we were happy to offer the feature a new home. Future installments of Mind Meld will appear monthly on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.

We read a lot about the boundaries between literary and genre fiction blurring with more books being marketed to broader audiences. Yet some readers say they prefer the boundaries to remain in place, allowing for easier sifting to find what they really want to read.

Q: How do you see the boundaries between literary and genre fiction adapting as we move forward?

Usman Malik
Usman Malik is a Pakistani writer of strange stories. His work has appeared in several Year’s Best anthologies, has won the Bram Stoker Award, and been nominated for the British Fantasy, World Fantasy, and Nebula awards. He resides in two worlds, but you can find him on Twitter @usmantm.

The role of genre boundaries in publishing almost always has to do with marketing. I suspect the transition to this model probably occurred when indie booksellers were replaced by chain bookstores. Historically, you could enter your local bookstore and tell the clerk you wanted a horror novel ‘just like the ones that fellow Stephen King writes’ and your bookstore owner or manager would lead you to what they believed you were looking for. That is not what happens most of the time these days, especially not at chain bookstores. Sure, a clerk can do that if you ask them to, but most people like to browse at their own pace (or already know the book they’re looking for) and genre labels come in very handy there. Therefore, whether we like it or not, they will stay around for a while.

At the same time, pulp genre novels are being subsumed by ‘commercial literary’ novels, at least as far as sales are concerned. If you look at the NYT bestsellers list, you will notice many of those books are what most people would call literary, yet they stick around for months on the list. Powerful marketing push is one explanation. The other, which I suspect makes a bigger difference, is the variety and loyalty of readership. Readers want new visions, new stories, new worlds, but at the same time many of them do want them written well, told well. The audience is always smarter than one might think and they like to be cognitively engaged, which is why this is such a good time to be a writer, especially if one is from a different culture. There is room for everyone at the table (whether that room is equitable or not is another subject).

As far as literary movements go, there does seem to be a trend in mainstream publishing and the broader American literary scene, whereby the tropes of speculative fiction or genre fiction of any sort are gaining wider respectability in what used to be realist circles. The fact that Iowa Writers Workshop is now welcoming self-identified science fiction writers into their MFA program speaks volumes to me. This can only be good for publishing. Fresh perspectives and exciting new fusions of theme, voice, and tone can only be good for us all.

Zachary Jernigan
Zachary Jernigan is a critically acclaimed author of science fiction and fantasy. His first and second novels, No Return and the Nebula Award-nominated Shower of Stones, are available in print and ebook editions from Night Shade Books; both are compiled in Jeroun: The Collected Omnibus, due out November 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod.

It’s a sort of complicated issue, I think. I grew to love science fiction and fantasy by browsing used bookstore shelves, so I understand how awesome it is to have the sort of books you’re likelier to identify with right in front of you.

At the same time, a lot of those books have crappy writing in them. (Feel free to disagree, obviously, but I do think genre fiction has, currently and historically, a significantly lower threshold for prose quality than literary/mainstream fiction.) To make matters worse, sf&f tends to be more conservative than other genres. (This is changing, though, which is all for the best.)

So, being that: 1.) I want to read about spaceships, unicorn people, laser-kites (no, I don’t know what that is, but it sounds cool), and dragons made of ice; 2.) I want to easily find books with those things; 3.) I want those books to have good writing in them; and 4.) I don’t want to read sexist and small-minded writing…

I see the blurring of the lines as an awesome development that can’t advance rapidly enough. I mean, sure, if all I had was a used bookstore at this point I might be a bit annoyed about the blurring. I’d stare over at the literary fiction section, wondering, Hey, maybe there are some good books over there, but knowing I’m too lazy to look for them.

The adaptations are already occurring, through the influence of the publishing world but even more through the influence of invested readers. As a result of social media, blogs, and genre/fan sites — not to mention retail sites such as Amazon — it’s now easier than ever to scratch your particular literary itch. Having multiple ways to find what you want, tailoring it to your needs at any given moment, is the future.

Is there something lost in that? Sure. You might never read that book that has been sitting, moldering in a dusty corner of the used bookstore, but there are always more books, each one chock full of surprises.

What I don’t have an answer for is how to blur the lines purposely in the potential reader’s mind. Some writers (*points to self*) like to write really out-there sf&f and literary fiction combined, all in one — space operas with dragons but also, hopefully, a good dose of subtlety, depth, and ambiguity. Sometimes, that can seem like a no man’s land, the avenues for promotion scant.

What adaptations need to happen for authors to reach potential audiences for both SFF and literary fiction?

Delilah S. Dawson
Delilah S. Dawson is the author of the Blud series, the Hit series, Servants of the Storm, Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon and Scorched, and a variety of short stories and comics. As Lila Bowen, she writes the Shadow series, including Wake of Vultures, winner of the RT Fantasy Book of the Year for 2015, and its imminent sequel, Conspiracy of Ravens. Find her online at whimsydark.com or on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.

Genre is a lot like the candy aisle at the grocery store. There used to be plain M&Ms, and they were delicious. But then we tried Peanut M&Ms. And then our unholy hunger for new tastes begat Mint M&Ms and Birthday Cake M&Ms. Once they started feeding us a steady supply of mash-ups and new, delicious flavors, it became impossible to return a world with limited choices. If we went to the store tomorrow and found *only* Plain M&Ms, there would be riots. I’m pretty sure that works for genre, too.

For those who still want the Plain M&Ms, they’re always going to find it. Every bookstore has a SFF shelf, and certain publishers are known for continuing to provide more traditional fare. For those who want to mix it up, however, the internet is the place to go for recommendations, new voices, and genre-bending e-books and novellas. If traditional publishing doesn’t have what you want, small press and indie publishing is there to fill niches at a faster pace. And, much to my delight, traditional publishing is becoming more open to SFF that pushes boundaries, incorporates diverse voices, and defies genre. Personally, I love that the more traditional version of Fantasy, primarily white, hetero, and male-led, is being supplanted by more current voices that still plumb the depths of exciting worldbuilding and dynamic character. Some of my recent favorites are The Fifth Season by Nora K. Jemisin, The Devourers by Indra Das, and Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. My own Wake of Vultures, written as Lila Bowen, is a pulpy Weird West monster hunt with a trans, mixed race lead. Just a few years ago, this book might’ve been impossible to sell to a traditional publisher, but my editor just bought two more books in the series.

The good news is that whatever you like, you can find it. The best news is that whatever you dream up next will find readers. Whether they find it on the SFF shelf in a physical bookstore or by searching for exactly what they’re looking for online, someone needs the book you were meant to write. When in doubt, ask a bookseller!

Django Wexler
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. You can find him at @DjangoWexler on Twitter or www.djangowexler.com.

Genre, as always, is tricky. I think the idea that the boundaries are getting blurrier isn’t really true; the boundaries are blurry, but they’ve always been blurry, and constantly in motion. When we come of literary age, we get an impression of the genre landscape and internalize the idea that this is just how things are, but if you look back you can see that the classifications which seemed natural and eternal are in fact pretty new. Even as little as forty years ago, things were very different — there was no clear distinction between fantasy and horror in some contexts, YA as we know it today didn’t exist, the term ‘urban fantasy’ meant something else entirely, and so on.

It’s important to remember that genres are tools, not holy writ. The purpose of genres is to help readers find things they’re going to like (and to help bookstores sell them) so it makes sense that genres are going to change as the market changes. I feel like there are two big, ongoing stories in the market as far as genre fiction is concerned: the general acceptance and popularity of genre work outside of its traditional niche, and the increasing diversity within the genres.

By now it is probably cliché to say that this is the age when geek stuff became cool. More accurate, I think, would be to say that big chunks of genre work that were fenced off from general consumption by a “geek” label have lost their stigma, and been adopted pretty enthusiastically. TV and movies are the most obvious examples: superhero movies, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are all properties that would once have been considered niche at best, not big-budget fare. It makes sense that this would carry over into the world of novels as well. There have always been literary writers who dabbled in SF or fantasy, but it often felt somehow transgressive; I think that’s changing, that it’s something you can be increasingly matter-of-fact about and trust your audience won’t balk.

At the same time, genre fiction has expanded considerably. I can mostly speak to fantasy, which is my home genre, and which has struggled for a long time to get out from under the shadow of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. There have always been fantasy authors doing new, strange things, but they were often overshadowed by traditional quest narratives with orphan farmboys saving the world from the Dark Lord. Now, though, the genre is getting much more diverse — both in the social sense (though there’s still a long way to go there) and in the types of stories becoming big successes. So you can have George R. R. Martin’s anti-quest fantasy and Brandon Sanderson’s bold high-magic romps, but also work that touches on real-world issues, from Max Gladstone’s finance-as-magic to investigation of colonialism in Seth Dickinson or Robert Jackson Bennett. It’s no wonder that some writers have been approaching the genre/literary divide from the other side of the line, too.

Basically, I think it’s easy to get too hung up on genre definitions, and to forget that they’re intended to be helpful aides rather than straightjackets. The boundaries will definitely shift as we go forward, and that’s okay — they always have!

Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s space opera Ninefox Gambit came out from Solaris Books in June. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat. You can find him online at yoonhalee.com and on Twitter as @motomaratai.

At this point in my life, I’ve come to see the distinction as largely being one of marketing. Marketing is the flip side of sifting: readers are looking for books that offer certain tropes or moods or themes or types of reading experiences, and the people doing the marketing are trying to connect books to the audiences that will appreciate them.

A solution I’ve seen to this problem I’ve seen in fanfiction (e.g. the repository at Archive of Our Own, http://archiveofourown.org/) is tags. An author might tag a work with things like genre and tropes and characters. I could see this being adapted for original works, maybe with crowdsourced tagging–for example, a consensus might develop that a certain novel is “steampunk” and has a “female protagonist” with “noir” sensibilities and bonus “Cthulhu mythos” elements (improbable as this particular combination sounds), and that would enable people to find what they want to read by multiple criteria.

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, is coming out with Fairwood Press in August 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Categories are tricky. There’s no clear definition of what is or isn’t genre fiction, so it makes sense that the boundary between literary and genre would be blurry. Honestly, I don’t see genre fiction and literary fiction as being mutually exclusive categories. I think it is possible for a story to be very literary and still have genre elements. Kelly Link comes to mind as a writer whose stories are both literary and genre. I’ve seen Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife shelved in Science Fiction, Literature, and even occasionally in Romance. There is something very arbitrary and artificial about assigning books into a single category and making a strong divide between literary and genre fiction.

That said, categories are useful in being able to find the types of stories you want to read. I like that I can go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of a bookstore to find certain kinds of stories and/or a certain style of writing. People who enjoy Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books might also like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.

The problem I have isn’t what I see on the shelf when I go to a certain section of the bookstore–it’s what I miss. The border cases, the ones that could be sorted either way, run the risk of not being seen by a subset of potential readers, simply because readers are looking in the wrong place. Even in non-border cases, having books sorted strictly into categories can cause readers to miss out on things they might enjoy. Someone who liked Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre might like Tina Connolly’s Ironskinthere are definite similarities between these books, but because one contains fairies/magic and the other does not, they get sorted into different categories.

One nice thing about the rise of online retailers is that books need not be sorted into one category to the exclusion of all others. A book that is both genre and literary can be tagged with both labels, and found by readers who are looking for either type of story. I think increasingly readers are finding books not by browsing physical bookshelves, but by searching online for keywords or categories. This allows readers to adjust their search terms to cast a broad net or a narrow one–searching for ‘epic fantasy’ turns up books by George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others, but searching for ‘silkpunk’ turns up Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings and little else. As we move away from the limitation of having to place books as physical objects in a single place, we no longer need to be as strict in the way we categorize or in the types of categories we use.

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, Markov enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors… usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets at @HaralambiMarkov.

I don’t think the boundaries between literary and genre works will fall overnight, leaving lost readers stranded in a landscape decidedly hostile towards their reliance on classification. That is the extent of my clairvoyance, however, it’s worth noting we live in exciting times. You see books such as the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer receive an ecstatic mainstream welcome and the backing from a major publisher. The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne has a firm footing in both genre and literary. A Lament for the Afterlife by Lisa Hannett follows conventions of its own making, while The Shore by Sara Taylor, a literary mosaic novel about a tragic family line, veers further and further in genre territory the further you progress.

To me these are signs the rigidity of genre boundaries is softening, allowing for conventions to intertwine, traditions to enter into new conversations, resulting in a new vitality. The weirder and harder to classify work becomes, the better for writers and readers. No one benefits from genre classification in the long run. Yes, it’s beneficial for publishers to employ a clear-cut strategy to move books off bookstore shelves and into readers’ pockets. Every writer wants to be read, every reader wants to pick the right book without a fault. But…

Over time as a reviewer, I’ve seen how marketing coupled with the rhetoric surrounding genre vs. literary (and often, genre vs. genre within the broader spectrum of speculative fiction) has led to calcification within certain genres. I’ve read books that are carbon copies of each other; seen genres turn self-referential within their tight confinements. Whenever you read about the proliferation of clichés and abuse of tropes without a meaningful contribution or commentary, you’re observing the effects of calcification. This isn’t to be read as either condemnation or overgeneralization, since I’m merely making an observation based on my limited experience as a reader with scattered interests at best. Ultimately, the scope of the subject at hand is so massive, a person can give you just a piece of the whole mosaic.

What I can tell you is that right now, boundaries are growing flexible. They’re growing porous. Ideas steal over from one side of the line to the other, growing new wings. Flying on different winds. It’s a slow process, but one gaining acceleration. As the nature of the written sent on its path to publication continues to defies easy definition, we’ll see marketing depart from its go-to cues to indicate where a book fits in a genre. Instead, we’ll see a focus on the singular nature of the work itself.

Lee Kelly is the author of A Criminal Magic and City of Savages. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced in Los Angeles and New York. She lives with her husband and two children in Millburn, New Jersey. Follow her on at @leeykelly and on her website at NewWriteCity.com.

The way I’ve always understood the definitions, “genre fiction” is defined as escapist fiction, novels that thrill or provide another form of entertainment, while “literary fiction” is meant to show us more about the human condition, and provide a means to better understand our world. Genre fiction is plot-driven, and literary fiction, character driven.

But don’t many of us really want both in a novel? I do. I want stories that excite and enchant, that send me to the furthest reaches of fantastical galaxies, explore the most intriguing “what if” scenarios, and yet, ultimately, show me more about who we are (or who I am) in the process. And I want stories fundamentally about the human condition to surprise, delight and maybe even terrify me. I want the strange to feel familiar and the familiar, strange. And I think that’s the problem with those above definitions, and why I think the blurring of these boundaries might actually (at least in part) originate with readers and writers.

Writers are first and foremost readers after all, and writers write what we want to read: character has become just as paramount in genre fiction as in literary fiction, and ever more “literary” writers are turning to speculative fiction devices (time travel, two Earths, alien invasions, etc. etc.) as clever ways to wrap up but ultimately gift us truths about humanity.

Which means, what, exactly, for those “genre” and “literary” fiction definitions? I personally think those definitions will persist: people who walk into a bookstore want direction, a lay of the land, and that means signage, which means books will, by necessity, always be labeled. Maybe we’ll see a shift to broader, more catchall categories (maybe Commercial Fiction and Dramatic Fiction?), but ultimately, there will still be some sort of “either/or” divide. Which might mean, as more “literary genre” novels and “speculative literary” novels are being published, more books might miss out on a portion of their potential readership because of how they are shelved.

Broader marketing strategies by publishers help combat this, but personally I think social media will become even more important to our reading community in bridging this divide, as books’ “content boundaries” continue to blur, but formal book categorizations stay in place. Readers now share and critique books in ways we’ve never been able to before, and make connections and comparisons based on personal interests versus targeted audience marketing or labels. I have faith that this means books will be found by readers who want them, regardless of where they are shelved or how they are labeled.

Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld discussion? Let us know! 

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