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Breaking Out of the SF Ghetto

by Robert E. Rogoff

In October/November 2000 Asimov's SF (the one given out at Chicon), reviewing several books that are arguably not genre SF, Norman Spinrad writes:

"More and more, as the SF genre implodes into de-energized stylization of itself and nostalgic attempted re-creation of past glories, and so-called 'serious contemporary literature' thrashes about in search of a viable readership, the most interesting action moves to the fringes."

He defines 'fringes' "not as the territory where the various forms, styles, genres, and levels of literature peter out, but where they interface with each other."

He goes on to say that a genre "may be defined as a set of constraints and requirements" and then basically says this is good as long as writers test the limits of the genre's conventions, but bad once it becomes a "primarily commercially driven marketing process, as it has with the 'SF' genre beginning somewhere toward to turn of the 1980s" hence becoming 'devolutionary.'"

Among other things, Spinrad announces

"The 'SF' genre is dead.

Long live speculative fiction."

It seems his main point is that SF as a genre, consisting of the three categories science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history, is no longer characterized by anything other than that a small portion of each category's fans attend cons.

Personally, I think liberating speculative fiction books from their ghetto would be a positive to readers or writers who are not active fans. Books with merit would still receive positive word of mouth as they do now; possibly also publicity in mainstream media sources.

What might change? Overall readership of specific titles or authors might increase. Brand name authors within the sf community might find themselves relative unknowns again. Authors who are not particularly worshipped within the sf community might have more sales than recognized Hugo and Nebula winners. Putting sf books back in with the rest of fiction titles might be unnerving to fandom, and probably, in some ways, to SFWA too. Some big fish within the sf community might turn into little fish in the pond of the fiction community.

And there's the issue of being in a ghetto to begin with. Writers such as Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson have recently begun writing what we call mainstream fiction, for whatever their reasons may be. But in general when that happens, it's considered a step up in one's writing career to "break out."

Since I haven't yet committed an actual sf novel, perhaps I shouldn't even continue with the sfnal projects I'm attempting to work on. Maybe I should escape while there's still time.

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Copyright © 1994-2008 Robert E. Rogoff. All rights reserved.