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December 11, 2001

Extratextual characteristics
Posted by Teresa at 12:00 AM *

I’m on a mailing list that draws heavily on people who work in SF publishing. A couple of days ago one of our list members wrote: “OK, gang, I have one for you. The term ‘speculative fiction’ has been used a lot lately. I find that it has a different definition depending on who you ask. What do you consider to be the definition of ‘speculative fiction’?”

I responded:

“Speculative fiction” is a more genteel term for “science fiction” that means more or less the same thing, but escapes some of SF’s vulgar old Gernsbackian pulp-magazine conntations.

It’s attractive to those who are predisposed to like science fiction, and more attractive than the older term to those who find the idea of science offputting. It sounds similar enough to “science fiction” that persons not previously familiar with the term will likely understand it to refer to something resembling but not identical to science fiction. And it has the same initials as Science Fiction, which means you can use it without having to teach a new abbreviation to booksellers, distributors, librarians, etc.

It allows a greater range of respectable old authors — Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Bierce — to be identified as ancestors of the form, in spite of their near-total lack of scientifictional content.

It frees everyone concerned from the last vestiges of any obligation to furnish stories with scientifictional content, while allowing the use of such content if the author happens to come up with a good scientifictional story idea; and it enables anthologists to buy stories that would otherwise be outside the scope of the original proposal used to sell the project to a publisher.

I’m not cynical; I just know how often such labels are flags of convenience. I’ve often found myself explaining to the young that there was once a time — back before Tolkien was a smash hit, before Ian and Betty Ballantine published the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, and infighters like Don Wollheim and Judy-Lynn Del Rey did their part to establish Fantasy as a publishing category — when “epic fantasy” was not considered one of the natural subdivisions of literature.

In my own time I’ve seen the technothriller broken out as a category. Books that at one time would have been “near-future action/adventure hard SF,” a subspecies of Our Beloved Genre, are now published as a technothrillers, a.k.a. “books like the ones Tom Clancy wrote,” and are classified as mainstream. It’s a natural process. A lot of readers enjoyed Clancy’s novels and wanted more just like them, so the increasingly strong gravitational field in that area of literary space started pulling in books that resembled Clancy’s.

It’s an oversimplification, but you could view technothrillers as books for people who’ve run out of Tom Clancy, Regency romances as books for people who’ve run out of Georgette Heyer, gothic novels for people who’ve run out of Daphne Du Maurier and the Brontes, and Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe novels as methadone for Patrick OBrian fans.

When the pull of the reading market’s desire is very strong and there aren’t enough sufficiently similar works hanging around that can be scooped up, strange things can happen, like C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra and E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (et seq.) being sold as “Just like Tolkien.” (I was twelve, the bookstore cozened all my birthday money out of me, and the books were nothing like Tolkien. I was outraged. It took me thirty years to find another trilogy I liked that much.)

Sometimes a category eats its founding author. Georgette Heyer’s best-known books were first published as historical novels, but got pulled into the romance category they helped create. It’s a pity; half the Heyer fans I know are men who heard about them through word of mouth. Worse, some of the books are now effectively being thrown away, repackaged in cheap paperback editions as generic Regency romances, where general readers never look. But it’s not unimaginable that if the Patrick O’Brian (et al.) market were to become big and hungry enough, Heyer’s period novels could come full circle, and be repackaged yet again as mainstream historicals

A few years back, Patrick came home at the end of the day and said “I just acquired a new title for the Tor Science Fiction Doubles line, but we’re going to put the Tor Fantasy logo on the cover, and we’re either going to put “Dark Fantasy” or “Horror” on the spine. I clapped my hands in glee and said “You’ve bought Conjure Wife!”

And so it was. Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife is the all-time champion shapechanger, and not just because it’s been filmed three times under four different titles, and hailed by critics as both a feminist and misogynist work. It was first published in 1943 as a serial in Unknown, and then as a novel in 1953. In the course of its wanderings it’s been packaged as science fiction, science fantasy, fantasy, dark fantasy, in French translation as romantic suspense with fantasy elements, and once as a gothic novel. It passed muster every time. What kind of book is it really? The only true answer is that it’s Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber. Period.

The books that haunt me are the idiosyncratic little works you sometimes find shoehorned into a category where they don’t belong. They live out their brief month or two upon the wire racks, confuse a few readers of the category to which they’ve been assigned, then disappear, never having had a chance to be read for what they are.

There was one I read when I was in high school — Sarah, I think its title was; the cover was mostly magenta-purple — that was published by Warner as a sort of quasi-Regency bodice-ripper, back when bodice-rippers were getting big but there weren’t enough of them yet to feed the pipeline. But it wasn’t anything of the sort! Not only was it full of authentically unromantic period detail — the Corn Law Riots made a major appearance — but it wasn’t properly a romance at all. The heroine turns down the handsome and eligible young man who proposes to her near the end, and instead marries his very old and very much smarter uncle. The uncle dies in due course, leaving his money to her instead of the eligible young man. When we last see her, she’s making plans to move to Wales with her best girl friend and use the money to start a school. Young Teresa thought that was pretty cool. I wish I still had a copy.

I’m not saying that it was a deathless literary masterwork. But if the great American novel of our times happens to look like some kind of category fiction, that’s how it’ll be published, and good luck on the rest of us ever hearing about it.

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