21
Mar
09

Let’s talk about the ghetto

I’d like to start a discussion here. I’m not writing this with the aim of starting a big controversy, but lately I’ve been wondering something:

Does SF take itself too seriously?

Is SF a ghetto where we’re the ones building the walls? Why do we get so damn pissed when someone dares to publish an SF book outside the ghetto, and doesn’t want to be labeled an SF author? Wouldn’t it be better to have the SFnal concepts introduced to a wider audience in order to un-ghettoize the ghetto?

Let’s look at romance. The romance book market comprises approximately 60% of all book sales.  They know they’re in the romance ghetto, but they don’t seem to get all bent out of shape if someone happens to publish a “mainstream” book that has romantic elements.  The easy answer to that is because there are a zillion stories with romantic elements. But I’m not so sure that we can say that SF/F is any different, because there are a zillion stories/movies/TV shows/[insert media of choice] with SFnal elements too. Yes, I understand the need for segregated sections of the bookstore. There are many books that are absolutely and unquestionably SF/F, and the writers and publishers of those books want to be sure that the readers can easily find them and others like them. And, we as readers like to be able to go to one section of the bookstore and know that we’ll find a certain kind of book that appeals to our tastes. Same goes for romance.  But, how about this? How about, instead of getting all bent out of shape when someone publishes an SFnal book outside of the genre, we instead embrace it and point to it as a great example of SF reaching out and branching out into the mainstream? How about understanding that there are many people who have no intention of ever going into the SF section of the bookstore, but are more than willing to pick up a copy of Twilight/Harry Potter/[insert other very popular book of your choice]. And, guess what? After they read that book and like it, they want more like it, and yes, there may even wander over to the ghetto and see something they like.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a writer who could be easily described as a grandmaster of the field. We got into a discussion of the above, and I was surprised to discover that he had repeatedly tried to keep himself from being labeled as a fantasy or science fiction author. When I asked him why, he explained that he wrote other books besides science fiction and fantasy, and it was frustrating to have everything he wrote to automatically be labeled as SF/F. But it made me wonder: If we in the SF/F field were to stop working so hard to keep writers “behind the ghetto wall,” would these writers who do write books that reach into the mainstream feel the need to try so hard to distance themselves from the genre?

I once asked a SF/F writer with significant writing chops and several awards and norms under his belt, why the “upper echelon” of SF gets so annoyed when a writer outside of the genre writes a “genre-ish” novel and gets recognition for that novel. His response was on the order of, “We’ve been doing the same thing for years, and yet they call his stuff groundbreaking.”

So….  what? It’s all about sour grapes?

How about instead of yelling at these writers and saying, “Hey, get back into this ghetto with the rest of us who are suffering over here,” we instead just kill ‘em with love and kindness and yell to the world, “Hey! Look! He’s one of ours! That’s what we do! We’re ridiculously proud that he’s a popular author who’s managed to make this great inroad into the general populace with themes that we nurtured and cared for and set free into the world. And hey, if you liked him, then you’ll love [name] as well!”

Discuss.


5 Responses to “Let’s talk about the ghetto”


  1. March 22, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I think you’re right overall, and there’s not much to be gained by grousing and indulging in jealousy. On the other hand, when someone considered to be a literary writer, like Margaret Atwood, denies her work is science fiction because she writes about people while all we write about are robots and space squids, it takes a big person to say, “Hey, that writer who just called me lame and turdy? You should totally read her stuff!”

    So, I do understand the hard feelings. But you’re right. In the end, they’re not productive.

  2. 2 Rachel Aaron
    March 22, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Honestly, I kind of like being in the ghetto. Since it’s not “high literature” I’m free to be as cheesy, over the top and ridiculous as I want. And who knows, maybe in 300 years, our populist ghetto of fun stories will be considered great art, just like all those trashy, sensational operas and bawdy English plays…

    Anyway, I’ve been an English Major, and I’ll tell you right now, we have way more fun in the ghetto. If “serious” authors don’t want to roll with some of the amazing, awesome innovation coming out of our little corner of the story world, their loss.

  3. 3 mlronald
    March 22, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    I think some of the reason that SF/F authors get cranky when an author outside the genre gets called “groundbreaking” for a book that reprises SF/F themes is the sense that the wheel has been reinvented. It’s as if someone were being congratulated for making a really good steam engine when all of our alternate engines over here are being ignored, regardless of how well they function.

    That said, I do have some of a knee-jerk reaction to mainstream literary criticism, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the very human urge to form a club and disdain everyone outside the club (and we can see how well that’s going for SF/F right now), maybe it’s that I find a lot of acclaimed realistic fiction too narrow. There are awesome non-genre stories out there, but the stories that get the acclaim often seem to have a similar aftertaste to them. Or maybe it’s emotional fallout from being kind of a twerp as a kid and thus assuming that anything popular is automatically not on my side.

    I do like reading critical analyses of genre texts, though, so it’s not the tools of the trade that repel me. Hm. I’ll have to think about this some more.

  4. March 23, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Well, I think you’ve hit on the intrinsic characteristic of any ghetto — it’s hard to get out not just because society puts you there, but also because the people in it start to internalize the idea that it’s where they should be.

    But in order to internalize this belief, those people need to also believe intrinsically that they deserve to be there. That they’re inferior. That their work means nothing to anyone except other people who are already in that ghetto with them. Once people start to believe this way about themselves, they then police themselves for “ghettoization”, and that includes dragging down anyone who dares to step outside it, or act like ghetto denizens if they’re not really from it.

    I tend to believe there’s only one solution to this problem, and it’s the same solution used to get rid of real-life ghettoes — educate people. Remind the ones in the ghetto that a system which restricts and limits them has been imposed on them by outsiders — in this case, all the publishers/bookstores/critics/etc. that have spent years maligning SF as badly-written wish-fulfillment pulp. Because of this, SF writers get the lowest author advances of any genre, and sales aren’t too hot either. Since SF which escapes this ghetto usually does quite well monetarily, the problem isn’t with SF, it’s with the outside world’s perception of SF. So we need to work to change that perception, starting with SF writers themselves — many of whom themselves believe it’s just badly-written wish-fulfillment pulp. (And some of whom fight to keep it that way.)

    But I think we also need to do some work on those outside forces. Some things we can’t affect; critics will pooh-pooh SF, especially the ones who haven’t actually read any. But we can do other things, like having SF organizations lobby Hollywood for better SF films and shows, or lobby Washington for more recognition of seminal authors. Shouldn’t Philip K. Dick get a library or two named after him? Etc. We should hit up school systems to include skiffy works on their reading lists. And so on.

  5. April 28, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Well, first off, one of the reasons for pissedness is that those non-genre authors writing genre works very often deny the ‘love’ you want to send in their direction – and so do their publishers, marketers & etc. Saying ‘look, that’s one of ours’ to a general public that can go searching for the (non-existent SF) label. If they bother to spend any time thinking about it, they then consign ‘SF’ to a deeper hole.

    Then too, there is my belief that avante garde art can’t exist outside of a ghetto. There needs to be that core, supporting audience that accepts that things will be different inside the walls, expects it, encourages it, supports it. The ghetto wall is mostly a wall that divides watered down and corrupted commercial interests from “art for art’s sake”. The nature of the wall is self-evident when you do side-by-side google searches for “science fiction” and “sci fi”, with sci fi overwhelmingly bringing up mass media, misconceptions and stories that are of a primarily commercial nature.

    So too on the convention front – commercial cons (not run by ghettoized fans) draw the larger crowds, gain the greater media coverage and deliver a product that is anything but “real” science fiction.

    Breaking down the wall is inevitable: commercial interests rule in this day and age and the lure of big money is already affecting publishing decisions.

    What we really need are gateways in the wall that encourage two-way traffic. TWO-way traffic – both in to and out of – and in my opinion one of the only reasons there aren’t such already is not the fault of those inside the ghetto, but the border guards on the outside of the wall.


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