Sunday, February 17, 2008

Genre fiction and the mainstream

A complaint often heard in speculative-fiction circles is that it is (as Harlan Ellison, I believe, first called it) a ghetto. Mainstream readers and critics are condescending and arrogant when they notice the work at all. In the rare event that they run across something that they have to consider good work, they contort themselves into pretzels to explain how and why it isn't "really" science fiction or fantasy.

That is all too well known to need much further comment. But what I think sometimes gets overlooked is the reverse phenomenon: the extent to which speculative-fiction readers, at least the more literate ones who are beyond exploding spaceships, cheat themselves out of some mighty fine reading by not paying attention to "mainstream" work that is, in plain fact, speculative.

I am reminded of this by the novel I am currently reading, The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Do a Google for that title and "review" and see what you get: The New York Times, the Village Voice, Salon, Au Currant [sic], CNN, even Entertainment Weekly, and a further assortment, as deep as you care to go down the list, of establishment "mainstream" venues. Not one speculative-fiction venue, though, not one. And a backup cross-check of the top three sites that come up under a Google for <science fiction fantasy> shows not one mention of Ms. Davis or her works.

Yet, as she herself has put it,

I’m interested in the plight of a character embarked on a journey through an utterly unfamiliar (and frequently fantastic) landscape…. The quest itself has never interested me as much as the chance to describe that other world.
And she does that, remarkably well, in smooth, lucid, often pungently clever prose. I'm not sure I can remember the last author who impressed me nearly as much with her ability to capture the essence of a person--major character or minor--in one dead-on zap of a sentence.

Ms. Davis has by now a roll call of six novels, all but one of which have a fantasy element. The fantastic does not, in most, dominate (which is curious in a tale in which a child can raise the dead), but it's there and it matters.

But my point here is not to single out and promote Ms. Davis, though her work is worthy, but to use her as an example of what literate speculative-fiction readers are mssing out on owing, I suppose, to the tendency of most of the channels through which they receive news to focus on the Kiddie Krap that too often passes for literature in the ghetto (which is why it is the ghetto).

That, of course, is why I run a web site--Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works--dedicated to the literate in speculative fiction. But I, too, all too often, end up discovering gems like Ms. Davis only fortuitously. (Often it is descriptions in the latest Daedalus Books catalogue that catch my eye.)

I don't know what a good answer is. One can scarcely peruse every book release to see if has a speculative element; the sheer number of avowedly speculative-fiction books published every year already forbids careful raw review. I guess one just keeps one's eyes and ears open, and hopes for the best.

So many books, so little time . . . .

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