Crossroads: Tensions between SF/F and Mainstream Literary Fiction

Welcome to the first week of May! This month, I’m going to be taking a look at the often-fraught relationship between speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction. I’ve always found the love-hate relationship between devotees of each genre fascinating because each relies so heavily on the other to renew itself. But the ways in which that happens are exactly the point of this month’s Crossroads series.

The Conflict Between Mainstream and Speculative Fiction

To pin down a definition for “mainstream literary fiction” is just as difficult as for “science fiction”. Like any other expansive genre, its borders are simultaneously fluid, fuzzy, and amorphous. The relationship between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction has always struck me as a battle between two amoebas: the two flow over and into each other, one trying to absorb the other, to the point where it is difficult to spot where one ends and the other begins. And throughout this epic and confusing struggle, the two are constantly undergoing mitosis and mixing their DNA freely.

This is not a creative conflict. It has little to do with the actual content of work published in either genre. “Mainstream” titles like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (published by MacAdam/Cage), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (published by Alfred A. Knopf), or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (published by McLelland and Stewart) are not about literary genres, or about perpetuating any perceived tension between their respective devotees. Each of these books – just like each of the thousands of speculative fiction books published every year – instead deals with its own concerns, its own themes.

Whatever conflict exists between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction stems from each genre’s audience. Speculative fiction has traditionally been dismissed as escapist and meaningless fluff by the “literary establishment” (whatever that is), while mainstream literature has been equally shrugged off by SF/F’s fandom as “pretentious and dull”. The perceived conflict between the genres is heavily wrapped in questions of social identity, group dynamics, and cultural priorities. While these are fascinating subjects in and of themselves, they usually have little to do with the stories that spark the discussions.

The Genesis of Mainstream Literary Fiction

On one level, “mainstream literary fiction” is a marketing category. In this way of thinking, it is everything that gets shelved in the “fiction” section of our local bookstore. In other words, if the book cannot be neatly slotted into “science fiction, fantasy, and horror”, “young adult”, “romance”, “mystery” or “historical fiction”, odds are that it will work its way into the fiction section.

Of course, this is an over-simplification of the process. In fact, most bookstores don’t categorize books based on actually reading them. With the number of books published every week, that would be practically impossible. While some bookstores might do better jobs of sorting their books in interesting and insightful ways, most just organize them based on how the publisher categorizes the book. And contrary to popular opinion, the publisher’s own categorization of the book is very rarely decided by a nebulous and nefarious “marketing team”.

Acquisition decisions (almost) always start in editorial, and editorial teams tend to be divvied up into imprints, which in turn reflect the specialized interests and passions of their editors. There’s a reason why a mystery imprint probably won’t publish automobile self-help titles. Such editorial specialization is natural and healthy, and in some houses can even extend into imprint-specific marketing, publicity, and sales teams. The skills, experience, and relationships which work for one genre may not apply to another. If that hypothetical mystery imprint were to publish an automobile self-help book, it would be stepping outside of its comfort zone and taking a risk. To make that risk pay off would likely require new skills, knowledge, and contacts. Such organizational risk-taking can happen (and does), but it is rarer (and more expensive) than one might think. If it were more common, then “genre imprints” would be a distant memory, and plainly they remain central to the industry.

So why then do we see mainstream imprints like Alfred A. Knopf (part of Random House) or Pantheon (part of Doubleday, which itself is part of Random House) publishing seemingly-science fictional works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? The underlying reasons seem complicated, but the practical reality is that:

  1. First, the author and/or their agent decided to submit their title to an editor at a mainstream imprint,
  2. And then, that mainstream imprint editor loved the book enough to acquire it.

The reasons for any one author/agent’s decision will be unique to their title and situation. Perhaps the author has traditionally written (or the agent traditionally represented) mainstream fiction, had a relationship with the editor/imprint/mainstream readership, and wanted to build on that foundation (if I were in Cormac McCarthy’s shoes when I started to dabble in science fictional fiction, I could well understand such a choice). Perhaps the book got rejected by speculative fiction imprints (for whatever reason), and so the author/agent tried a mainstream imprint and found success. Perhaps the author/agent thought the book had more in common with mainstream literary fiction than with speculative fiction. The causes are legion, and attempting to dissect them – fun as it may be – is likely to be pure conjecture.

The more interesting question, however, is why (or even whether) mainstream editors (and by extension, mainstream readers) are more open to science fictional devices and conceits today than they were thirty years ago? And at the same time, are speculative fiction editors (and again, readers) more open to the devices and methods of mainstream literary fiction? How are the creative approaches used by both genres sharing and shaping each other?

And that is the question that I hope to explore this month. Whether an author chooses to call themselves a science fiction author, a fantasy author, a literary fiction author, or anything else is beside the point. That is a question of identity, and of positioning one’s legacy within a broader literary canon. The more interesting question – and the more meaningful, I think – is how those canons work, and what each learns from and rejects from the other.

Next week, I’ll be diving into that breach by focusing on some of recent history’s primary examples of cross-over between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction: magical realism. ‘Til then, what do you think of the relationship between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction?

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