The Sunday Salon: General Fiction Versus Speculative Fiction

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?

16 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: General Fiction Versus Speculative Fiction

  1. I hate it when bookstores do this, too. If you’re going to have a section, commit to it, bookstores! I’m sure their intention is to make it easier for customers to find what they want, but it feels an awful lot like keeping the majority of people out of the sci-fi/fantasy section. I have the same problem with so-called “urban” fiction, which I’ve recently seen as its own section in some bookstores. Of course “urban” (seriously, who do they think they’re fooling with their cutesy little code? They mean black.) writers like James Baldwin or Alice Walker are in the main fiction section. It’s infuriating.

    *end angry rant*

  2. I sometimes wish bookstores would just get rid of the genre distinctions for fiction because the classifications seem so arbitrary. Then again, when I’m craving a mystery, it’s handy to have them all in one place.

    Then again, I can understand putting books that are likely to appeal to readers who aren’t interested in the genre into general fiction. There are certainly reader who like Maguire but who would shy away from the fantasy section. (Makes me sad, but there it is.) But why not shelve the books in both areas? Is it a space issue? Because it does seem to send the message that general fiction books are somehow superior if the “best” books of the particular genres end up in general fiction.

    • I think it would be an organizational issue- not only are there usually not enough copies to stock both sections, it’s a bit of a mess. I’m totally fine with highlighting popular books in displays, but in actual shelving, it sends the wrong message.

  3. I swear, sometimes I feel that my whole LIFE is a succession of episodes of me being enraged at things like this. Okay, slight hyperbole, but only slight. I see it happen not only in bookstore placement, but also in conversations in which people try to justify why that one book they loved is not “really” fantasy, in reviews that use the phrase “transcend genre” (GAG), in the use of the expression “magic realism” to classify, I don’t know, Neil Gaiman or Kelly Link or Susanna Clarke or whoever else has some degree of critical status… it never ends. GRR.

    I can see Teresa’s point about luring readers who wouldn’t venture into the fantasy section, but I worry that if we do this by presenting fantasy novels with mainstream appeal as not “really” fantasy, then the stereotype of fantasy as mere brainless escapism will never end.

    • I totally agree with everything you just said. I tend to use magical realism as a term to describe something set in a contemporary setting with ambiguous fantastical elements, but seeing people defend the books they love as not fantasy is just silly.

    • Watching the commentary track to Back to the Future, I learned that the modern concept of teenager was born during the 1950s, when teenagers began to have disposable incomes. When a gentleman in my class said that the girls of The Crucible were acting out because they were teenagers, I pointed out that, during the time of The Crucible, there were no such thing as teenagers (as we know them know). These days, I’d probably explore the connection between that and the fact The Crucible was published in 1953, but I’ve always loved the thought that being a huge nerd teaches me very widely.

  4. I am thrilled you enjoyed True Confections.

    While we’re on the subject of bookstore shelving practices, imagine spending your career shelved in the W’s in fiction — which means around the back, no, not that shelf, that one only goes up to T, the end of the alphabet is around the corner and over by the bathroom, and the Ws are down at ankle height — in a world that sells more books (really!) by authors with last names that begin with the first letters of the alphabet.

    • Thank you for writing it! It’s absolutely wonderful. My review will be posted next Monday, if you are so inclined.

      Oh, I can totally understand. I always feel sorry for the pour souls whose work has to reside at foot level in bookstores.

  5. See, I would have never ever thought to classify Wicked as fantasy, because I think that retellings of fairy tales are their own things. I mean, I don’t think that what he did with Wicked is any different than what he did with Mirror, Mirror or The Ugly Stepsister (other than the fact that I actually enjoyed Wicked and NOT the other tw0). I think it would be far more confusing to have his fairy tale retellings split up based on whether or not they can be seen as being placed in the real world.

    • See, I don’t consider Wicked a fairy tale retelling, since it’s a reimagining of Oz- essentially, fanfiction. I consider Wicked, with its obvious fantasy markers (a different world, magic, talking animals), and Mirror, Mirror (with the dwarves) fantasy, while The Ugly Stepsister is straight historical fiction. If it’s ambiguous, I don’t mind where it’s shelved, but I would expect to see someone’s historical fiction in one section and fantasy in another if we have such divisions in the shop.

  6. I totally hate the divisions to begin with. They make more sense for nonfiction, but for fiction I think it should all just be jumbled up in there for us to discover! And the whole ‘genre’ debate vs. ‘literary’ fiction just makes me start to steam. :p

  7. I actually don’t mind organizing books by genre category because it makes it much easier for me to find the type of book I want on any given day, but it does irk me that certain genres, i.e., fantasy, are consigned to the bookstore ghetto, and that certain bookstores are in denial about certain well-received books (Gregory Maguire, as you point out) being what they are — fantasy.

    Honestly, some of the best novels ever utilize fantastical elements, and while I admit many fantasy writers are better than others — Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Hand, Robin McKinley —, fantasy gets so much flack for being unrealistic.

    One minor issue, I think, are the cheese-tastic covers that was or are assigned to otherwise excellent books. They just make ’em look cheap and trashy (for instance, some of Terry Pratchett’s older covers until he got a more “credible” reputation).

    Another is the idea that “realistic” fiction is necessarily better than “fantastical” fiction because it is about real people. Never mind that some fantasy makes better use of character and theme, real issues and emotions, than some realistic novels. (Ever read Neil Gaiman’s story satirizing that perception, “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”? It rocks excellently).

    Then, of course, there are those awful, awful books that give fantasy the reputation of being unrealistic wish-fulfillment (you know those books).

    It sucks that often the only way for fantasy novels to be considered credible is for it to be packaged as magical realism (which I love, but let’s face it, it’s usually rich man’s fantasy), although I do think it is changing a bit, since the advent of Harry Potter and (gag) Twilight, although they are still perceived as “transcending” genre.

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