Sunday, May 24, 2009

Did you misplace your fiction?

As I’m in the midst of my short story stint, some questions as to how certain works or even authors get placed in certain genres have arisen. Though I read many a high brow and pretentious work of ‘literary fiction’ (which is the most redundant nomenclature ever conceived) and my affinity for 19th century Russian literature isn’t normal, my main interest lie in upper echelon of quality scientific fiction and fantasy. As such, in my current perusal of short stories I have come across a few authors whose work really makes me question the standard conventions we use when organizing today’s bookshelves.

I just finished Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two (God only knows what year) and within are many quality short stories. Of particular interest to me were Peter S. Beagle’s The last and Only or How Mr Moskowitz Becomes French, Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist Gate, Dead Horse Point by Daryl Gregory, The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham, Last Contact by Stephen Baxter, and Jesus Christ Reanimator by Ken MacLeod--a satire.

At what point in time does a work cease to be fiction and become a sub-genre: fantasy, science fiction, horror and so forth? What degree of suspension of disbelief is needed? We can buy into all the political mechanizations of The Godfather, and the court room suspense within any John Grisham novel but the moment but when someone comes back from the dead as a plot device as in MacLeod’s story or morphs nationality as in Beagle’s we need to conceive a new genre as to not mislead our readers? And to mislead the readers into thinking what precisely? I’m not the first to say, ‘all fiction is fantasy,’ though I’d love to know was the first to say it.

Some of the stories in this particular collection had such slight elements of the fantastic that upon finishing them I was genuinely surprised that they were included in the volume. Good fiction is good fiction and that has nothing to do with a genre appellation. Through no fault of their own, I feel a good deal of readers are missing out on great works that they may find highly enjoyable simply because the books maybe placed somewhere they wouldn't think to look. If you are talking about spell casting dragons or planet destroying lasers--both of which are extremely cool--then the designation is correctly laid upon those authors but what if you have a character that has a lengthy conversation with the devil as in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov? Should that perhaps be placed in the fantasy section of your local book seller?

MacLeod’s story is very serious, equally funny and always mocking of something; that is what makes satire so difficult. But is the idea of the second coming and creating a story around it really enough to ‘pigeon hole’ the work as fantasy? (Or would that be science fiction?) I feel bad for the multitude of readers that are missing out on countless phenomenal works simply because it didn’t fall in the boundaries of their preferred reading material. Furthermore I would point out that for the average reader those boundaries are spelled out by the publishing world and retail outlets.

Retrospectively, I wonder if past best sellers like The Historian or Jurassic Park were located in the fantasy section of book stores. Why aren’t certain works of Franz Kafka, Stephen King, or Gabriel Garcia-Marquez on the fantasy shelf?

Be sure to consider all your options next time you're looking for something new and interesting to read. You might find a great book in a place that surprises you. Then you may do as I have and wonder why it was there in the first place.


Terry Weyna said...

And then there are the fantasists who never show up on the genre shelves -- Steven Millhauser, for instance, who writes wonderful short fiction that usually partakes of the fantastic, but is always shelved with the regular fiction. Or Margaret Atwood, several of whose novels have been science fiction, who is always shelved in "literature." Alice Hoffman writes magical realism, as, of course, does Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but they never appear in the fantasy section, either.

I'll be interested to see where they shelve "The Angel's Game" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It's a wonderful book coming out next month (I've read the ARC, and will be blogging about it soon), but it's a mystery, a fantasy, a translation from the Spanish, and literary fiction all at the same time. Hope people will be able to find it!

Chad Hull said...

Wow! Terry Weyna commenting on my blog. I've caught the attention of a celebrity! (If you're ever in need of a recommendation for a good book, she's a great reference. )

Alice Hoffman is a perfect example. She's exactly the kind of writer I was trying to bring to mind when writing this post.

As to make sure Zafon isn't lost to me, I'll have to flag his book on Amazon. Regardless of the genre it sounds interesting.

Terry Weyna said...

A celebrity?! No one's ever accused me of that before! Laughing here, with delight -- and thanks for the plug for my blog.

Zafon has an earlier book called The Shadow of the Wind -- on my shelf but as yet unread. When I start my third-quarter project of reading literature in translation, I'll be reading and reviewing it. I know that it's been very successful and popular, especially with those who really love books qua books -- one of those special books that seems to have been written especially for booklovers.

Chad Hull said...

At least a 'B-List' celebrity right?