While in New England during the end of May, I amused myself by perusing independent bookstores to search for new books to read. (It’s almost a wonderful no-sum game; for every book I check off my reading list, there’s one or two books to take its place.) Somewhere in Maine, I wandered into a bookstore and immediately gravitated to the fantasy and science fiction shelf. Once done, I turned around to look at the general fiction shelf only to see Gregory Maguire’s Wicked staring at me. I tamped down the urge to put Wicked where it belonged and continued with my browsing. But it reminded me of how some people view general fiction as superior to speculative fiction, which irritated me to no end.
Bookstores, I have noticed, tended to divide up books in mostly the same order. Historical fiction, classics, and contemporary fiction usually end up in the general fiction section. Romance and mysteries usually receive their own special sections, for everyone’s sanity, and science fiction and fantasy usually share their spaces. Nonfiction gets several divisions, depending on large the bookstore is, but that’s not my focus today.There are novels, of course, that rightfully don’t fit perfectly in one section or the other–Slaughterhouse-Five has science fiction elements and historical fiction elements, but since it uses the science fiction elements so poorly, I would never shelve it in there. I have no problem with novels like that.
But I’m mildly offended to find Wicked, which is so clearly fantasy, shelved with general fiction. Just in case I was being paranoid about an independent bookstore shelving error, I checked my local Books-a-Million here in Georgia to see where Wicked was shelved. Sure enough, it was in general fiction, as well as Stephenie Meyers’ The Host, which involves aliens. I just absolutely resent this implication that these books, by virtue of their popularity, have transcended the sometimes maligned genres they belong to.
As a massive geek, I’ve never been particularly picked on in middle school or high school for my reading habits or viewing habits. (Back to the Future was actually quite useful in a discussion of The Crucible!) But I know how science fiction and fantasy can be viewed (by people who tend to not read the genre at all) as pure escapism. I find this to be utterly false. Fantasy and science fiction allow us to look at humanity through a different lens, letting us see things we can’t see with whatever particular set of blinders we have on- privilege, prejudice, and the like. The best novels do this. There are, of course, plenty of fantasy and science fiction novels that are escapism, but then, I’d like to point you in the direction of nearly half the romance novels ever published and fluffy beach reads. (Nothing against romance novels, of course, but let’s be honest here.) So to find Wicked, a very good fantasy novel, shelved in general fiction sort of felt like a slap in the face. Because it’s a popular and critically acclaimed novel, it gets to escape any stigma that might be attached to the fantasy genre. It smacks of someone eating their cake and having it too. There’s nothing wrong with not liking fantasy or science fiction–we all have our tastes. But I think there’s something wrong in privileging general fiction over speculative fiction while trying to treat popular fantasy novels as not what they are.
It may have been a mistake on the part of a bookstore employee–after all, Maguire has also written some (frankly terrible) historical fiction. But it reminded me of the conflict between general fiction and speculative fiction, which I find absolutely ludicrous.
In other news, my reading has been going extraordinarily well recently. I finished Beauty, which I didn’t like, to my dismay, as well as True Confections, which was absolutely wonderful. I’m so happy it came after two books I didn’t particularly care for–it was a nice treat. I finished The End of Overeating last night, which was fascinating but very dry. I rented His Majesty’s Dragon and The Sheen on the Silk, and actually bought an eBook for once in life, since Plastic Jesus isn’t available any other way. I cannot wait to start His Majesty’s Dragon. I have waited actual years to read this novel. I would start today, but today is the last day of the Georgia Renaissance Festival. Naturally, I’m gluing on my elf ears and going–hopefully there will be plenty of things on sale (need to actually start on my steampunk costume instead of working on other ones) and an extra awesome Tortuga Twins show at the end of the day.
What you do think about general fiction versus speculative fiction?