Where Does Genre Come From?
By Jed Hartman
3 December 2001
Genre labels have at least as much to do with reader perception as with content.
I've been having a lot of discussions lately about the differences between literary fiction and other genre fiction (especially speculative fiction). All such discussions are doomed, of course; even agreeing on a useful definition for a given genre is nigh-impossible. Still, I'm interested in exploring genre definitions and boundaries, and in looking at fiction that crosses genres, or that falls into the interstices between genres. Such fiction is sometimes known as slipstream or interstitial fiction. (The two terms are not precisely synonymous, but there's a large overlap.)
One of the most important reasons for such explorations is that speculative fiction readers are often blind to what's going on outside of the worlds of science fiction and fantasy publishing (and similarly, literary-fiction readers are often contemptuously dismissive of speculative fiction without knowing anything about it). I think cross-pollination can help expose everyone to new ideas. For example, in the late '80s and early '90s, Bruce Sterling wrote some stories (I'm thinking in particular of "Dori Bangs" and "The Sword of Damocles") that did things nobody else in speculative fiction was doing at the time. The stories garnered high praise from speculative fiction readers for being innovative and daring, for going far beyond anything those pitiable mainstream writers could do. But those stories could have been published as literary fiction; they employed metafictional devices that literary fiction had been using for decades.
So I think it's worth exploring how a work ends up with one genre label instead of another. But before getting into that, let's talk a little about what the word genre means.
Genre vs. Marketing Category
I went through a big paradigm shift when it was first pointed out to me that for many purposes, science fiction is simply a marketing category. A couple years after that, I heard Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith talk at a convention about fiction that spans genre boundaries; if I remember right, they said that a science fiction romance novel would sell something like ten times as many copies if marketed as a romance than it would if marketed as SF.
Bruce Sterling, in his seminal essay on slipstream, borrowing terminology from Carter Scholz, distinguishes between marketing category (how books are categorized on bookstore shelves) (Sterling and Scholz use the term category) and genre (an "inner identity" or set of characteristics shared by a set of works). I often use the term genre to mean both of those things, but I think it's often worth making the distinction.
Not all of what I would call SF is marketed as such. My understanding is that Kurt Vonnegut (for example) intentionally distanced himself from what was then considered the SF ghetto, in a (successful) bid for mainstream appeal; Slaughterhouse-Five is obviously an SF novel in the sense that it contains SF elements (coming unstuck in time, aliens), but was published and received as literature. Other fiction with major speculative elements that's been published as mainstream literature includes Donald Barthelme's stories (a king with a donkey's head, putting buildings in envelopes to mail them, and so on), Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (a flying horse, extrapolation into the future), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (in which a ghost features prominently). This isn't a new phenomenon, of course; many older works containing prominent speculative elements (ranging from Gulliver's Travels through Frankenstein and Dracula to Brave New World and 1984) weren't labeled as science fiction or fantasy, and are still widely considered literature rather than science fiction.
And that's one definition of slipstream: fiction with fantastical elements that's published in a marketing category other than speculative fiction. (As I understand Sterling's essay, this is fairly close to one of his original definitions of the term.) By that definition, of course, no speculative fiction magazine or publisher has ever published any slipstream.
But at another end of the multidimensional and slippery concept of slipstream, there are works with few or no traditional speculative elements that are published as speculative fiction. Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, for example, is widely considered a fantasy novel, and it reads and feels like a fantasy novel, but it lacks the major element that marks most fantasy as fantasy: it contains no overt magic. It takes place in a world other than our own, populated by humans, in a culture that in many ways resembles a historical human culture; and it was published by Tor Fantasy, with a Thomas Canty cover. All of which are hallmarks of a certain kind of fantasy. But unlike other fantasy novels, this one violates no laws of physics, contains no humanoid races or talking animals or fantastic monsters; it owes more to Georgette Heyer than to Tolkien, and Gene Wolfe described it as "Noel Coward [writing] a vehicle for Errol Flynn." It seems reasonable, then, to label the book (as the author does) interstitial: a work that falls into the interstices between traditional marketing categories. (I should note that my cavalier uses of terms like speculative fiction and fantasy should not be seen as an indication that those terms have simple definitions. I've encountered a few people lately to whom fantasy means specifically what I would call high fantasy (which has a lot of overlap with what Interzone calls Big Commercial Fantasy): Tolkienesque elves and dragons. Whereas by my definition, anything containing magic is fantasy, whether it's urban fantasy, magic realism, high fantasy, science fantasy, dark fantasy, or none of the above.)
And then there are hard-to-classify items like the comic book Love & Rockets (in which one of the two major sets of stories starts out with spaceships and dinosaurs and superheroes and various other sci-fi trappings but rapidly evolves into being largely non-fantastical and heavily character-driven; while the other major set of stories drifts back and forth across the line between Latin American-style magic realism and literary fiction). Not to mention children's picture books, which largely aren't market-categorized by whether they contain speculative elements. (Someone suggested some years back that Dr. Seuss should be awarded a posthumous lifetime-achievement Hugo; I think the suggestion was intended mostly as a joke, but I thought it was a brilliant idea and I wish it had happened.)
Sterling noted in his essay that slipstream was a new genre but not yet a new marketing category. That was true at the time, but I think slipstream may be on its way to slowly becoming a marketing category, even if nobody yet is quite sure what it means. At WorldCon 2000, we talked with someone from one of the SF book publishing companies about Strange Horizons; she tried to help us find a short catchy label or category that we could use to describe the magazine, to give readers some idea what to expect and therefore draw them in. We used the word slipstream in passing, and she said something like, "Oh! So you're publishing stories with a slipstream mentality. That's the kind of description readers will understand." (That's not an exact quote; she phrased it more clearly.) She was looking for a marketing category to put us into, to improve our advertising, and "slipstream" was one that made sense to her.
So What Exactly Is Slipstream, Anyway?
These days when most people use the word slipstream, they're generally talking about a particular feel that some fiction has. (As Mary Anne wrote in her editorial a few months ago: "In the end, [genre seems] to come down to a matter of language and tone.") Jonathan Carroll is the usual canonical slipstream example: a fluid mix of reality and fantasy, published as literary fiction. And much of what genre authors publish as literary fiction is slipstream -- that's certainly how I'd categorize some of Le Guin's more literary work, such as "Half Past Four," a story published in The New Yorker in 1987, which presents several disconnected permutations of a set of characters and character names, as if showing several alternate-universe versions of the ways these characters might interrelate.
Another way of putting it is that slipstream is fantasy (generally set in a world much like our modern world) that doesn't read like fantasy; it usually Feels Like Literature, but has fantastical (often extravagantly fantastical) elements that are fundamental to the story. It's often a little harder-edged than magic realism -- more often William S. Burroughs than Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- but then again, it can be construed as being a subset or a superset of magic realism.
I think it's reasonable to say that (as noted in Sterling's booklist) Barthelme and William S. Burroughs and Pynchon are all slipstream writers. They get weirder and more hard-edged than most of what I'd call magic realism (though fully exploring the overlaps and differences between the two terms would take another essay), and the magic and weirdness is often less fluidly integrated with reality -- it's often a bit jarring and somewhat over-the-top, whereas a lot of magic realism (at least the Latin American kind) is so dreamlike that you can almost forget that that sort of thing doesn't happen in the real world. Slipstream is also sometimes a catch-all "weird stuff that doesn't fit any other category" category; Sterling says that on being given a vague definition of the term, any SF reader can immediately add books to the slipstream reading list, but I think that's partly because there are several overlapping definitions, some of which are very vague. Anything that doesn't have any overtly and unequivocally fantastical elements but does contain things that might be fantastical could probably be labeled slipstream. By a loose definition of slipstream, probably the majority of the fiction that we at Strange Horizons publish could be labeled that way, but calling us a slipstream magazine would probably give the wrong idea.
In the end, defining slipstream is at least as difficult as defining speculative fiction; I'm sure others' definitions will vary. Work that has no clear fantastical elements sometimes hangs out in the general neighborhood of slipstream; whether you call it slipstream or not depends on your definitions.
Aspects of Genre
Sterling provides other definitions of slipstream as well. For example, he notes that the kind of writing he's talking about could also be called "Novels of Postmodern Sensibility." He adds: "It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against 'reality.' . . . [T]hese works . . . often somehow imply that nothing we know makes 'a lot of sense' and perhaps even that nothing ever could." But here I think Sterling is conflating a couple of different aspects of what he's labeled as slipstream: on the one hand, slipstream as a fuzzy label for items that don't quite fit into traditional genres, and on the other hand, slipstream as defined by a particular attitude shared by certain of the writers.
So I think it's worth looking at a couple of different aspects of what constitutes genre. Even if the following areas don't quite manage to define slipstream, I think they're useful to think about when attempting to categorize various kinds of fiction.
Content -- whether a work contains "speculative elements" or not -- is what I'm usually talking about when I attempt to put genre labels on fiction. Science fiction, for example, most often is set in the future and involves some sort of technology that's beyond our current understanding but doesn't contradict currently known/believed physical laws. Slipstream, too, often contains fantastical elements of some sort, or elements that verge on the fantastical or in some way appear to be fantastical. But you can probably come up with a dozen counterexamples to each of those descriptions without trying hard.
We in the Strange Horizons fiction department are definitely interested in slipstream, but we do generally require that stories we publish have a fairly clear speculative element. There are exceptions -- stories like "Medusa at Morning," for example, in which the snakes waver across a blurry line between metaphorical and literal. (Which is part of what I like so much about that story.) And we've published a couple of stories in which the speculative element is definite but very slight (though as we see it, other factors put those stories firmly in the speculative fiction tradition). But in most cases, if we can't see something that looks undeniably fantastical to us in a story, we probably won't publish it.
Not all magazines take that approach. Century, for example, publishes some stories that have no speculative elements; a review at Tangent suggests that it makes more sense to think of Century as a literary magazine with an interest in SF than as an SF magazine per se.
It sometimes feels a bit arbitrary to me to make a distinction between stories with speculative elements and those without, but we (the Strange Horizons fiction editors) want to publish speculative fiction rather than other kinds of fiction, and content is an element in perception of genre, so we continue to generally make that distinction.
But as noted earlier, a reader's perception of genre often has little to do with content; it's often the language or prose style that makes the difference. Slipstream often is written in unusual prose styles; it's often edgy and direct, sometimes choppy, sometimes lyrical. The language of classic science fiction is often transparent, using prose that doesn't call attention to itself; the language of hard-boiled detective novels feels succinct and direct but is surprisingly full of metaphor; the language of high fantasy tends toward the archaic. One way to mix genres is simply to apply the language of one genre to the content of another.
Narrative structure is another area that, while not directly related to genre, is often indicative of genre. Slipstream and literary fiction use experimental and non-traditional narrative forms more often than science fiction does: nonlinearity (in a variety of forms), lack of traditional plot structure, breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, inclusion of non-prose forms in the work (see Always Coming Home), and so on. Also, genre writers tend, in my experience, to be very concerned about keeping viewpoint strictly consistent and constrained, while literary fiction writers seem mostly to care less about following Standard Rules Of Story Construction and more about achieving specific effects.
Of course, unusual and experimental forms of fiction can be found in speculative fiction as well. There was plenty of experimentation back in the New Wave, and it's still going on; Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Other Cities" is a good example of a work that doesn't have most of the elements of a traditional narrative. Hyperfiction is another promising area of development for experimental narrative; I haven't seen much that I've liked, but the field is still maturing.
Alan DeNiro introduced me to a useful analogy: if traditional narrative structure is like a window, more experimental writing is like a stained glass window. Alan notes that the former tries to be transparent, not letting style or structure interfere with clear gazing outside, while unusual styles and structures force you to look at the window, notice the colors, textures, and so on. These are two different approaches to writing (and reading), with different goals: as Alan puts it, "Sometimes you want to look outside, and sometimes you want to look at the window."
Attitude Toward Fantastical Elements
Finally, one of the biggest elements in determining how a reader perceives a work's genre is the attitude the work takes toward fantastical/speculative elements. If such elements are treated as satire, metaphor, or surrealism, for example, chances are the work will feel more like literary fiction; in science fiction and fantasy, they're more often treated as literal fact in the world of the story. If it's not entirely clear whether those elements are intended to be taken literally or not, the work may end up in the gray zones of slipstream or interstitial fiction.
By "speculative elements" I mean, more or less, things that couldn't happen in the real world today as the world is generally construed by Western scientific/rationalist culture. By convention, nonexistent people and geography that are similar enough to real equivalents to seem realistic don't count as speculative; also by convention, alternate history (contradicting known historical fact) does count. By convention and historical association, modernized versions of fairy tales and folksongs -- retelling an old story in a modern and naturalistic context (even without speculative elements) -- tend to loiter on the borderlands of speculative fiction.
In the introduction to her anthology Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, Nalo Hopkinson writes: "Northern science fiction and fantasy come out of a rational and skeptical approach to the world. . . . But the Caribbean, much like the rest of the world, tends to have a different worldview: The irrational, the inexplicable, and the mysterious exist side by each with the daily events of life." This thread exists in North American and Western European literature as well, but more in the literary-fiction tradition than in speculative fiction. Stories are often told through the subjective filter of a character's perceptions; most often in North American speculative fiction, when strange things happen to a character living in a realistic world, the simplest explanation is that the character is insane. (In the '40s, characters in SF stories spent pages trying to figure out whether they were insane or not; I don't generally have much patience for that these days. I want a nod to the issue, but I also want a recognition that today's readers are sophisticated enough not to need that kind of thing played out in great detail.)
In the end, then, what genre we assign to a work depends on a variety of different factors, from content, style, and structure to how the work is marketed. There are real and valid differences between genres, but works that fall on or between the borders of genres are hard to categorize clearly; and it's those works that often provide fertile ground for expanding and enriching the cores of the genres.
I'll leave you with a quotation from critic Larry McCaffery:
". . .[T]alented artists nearly always find ways to loosen the corset of genre expectations to give themselves enough room . . . [to] produce [fresh and original] genre works. . . . [But T]ruly great writers like Theodore Sturgeon are rarely content with merely loosening these restrictive norms; what they are often after are much more thoroughgoing reconfigurations that will permit them to break on through to an entirely new textual space . . . where they can . . . begin exploring what they really want to write about."
--Larry McCaffery, Foreword to The Perfect Host, volume 5 of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
So even if we can't reconfigure the genre completely, let's get to work loosening those corsets.
Parts of this editorial were originally posted to the Rumor Mill.
Bryan Cholfin's editorial for the Crank! Web page talks about what he'd like to see in the intersection between speculative fiction and literary fiction.
Samuel R. Delany, "About 5,750 Words," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. All of my conversations about metaphor and style in science fiction end up coming back to this essay, particularly its discussion of "subjunctivity level" in phrases like "winged dog" and "the door dilated."
An almost entirely unrelated use of the term interstitial fiction appears in "Misadventure: Future Fiction and the New Networks," by Stuart Moulthropan, an essay on hyperfiction, "interactive fiction," and the future of fiction.
If you want more about slipstream, you could attend the Slipstream Conference at LaGrange College in Georgia.