A sci-fi novel won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction! And one of the genre's grand masters, the amazing Ray Bradbury, was presented a special citation from the committee. Excellent! This news arrives when we're seeing writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick justly commemorated with nifty Library of America editions.
So, um ... why do the publishing and entertainment industries cringe and whine at the thought of calling anything science-fiction?
It doesn't make any sense, especially in Hollywood. Check out this list of top-grossing movies. How many would you classify as sci-fi or fantasy? I'd say at least 15 of the top 20 are genre films. So what gives?
A bad reputation, that's what. SF is considered, even by many of its fans, nothing more than a literary ghetto. In a way, that makes it a safe place to play with ideas because nobody's really watching ... unless you happen to achieve something serious. Then the rules change. Look at the Kurt Vonnegut novel generally regarded as his masterpiece, a story about a guy who is pulled randomly through time and is at one point (many points, actually) abducted by aliens.
"Ah, but that's metaphor," sniffed one memorable snob during a literature class I took many years ago.
Sigh. When you live in a ghetto, see, you're allowed to play with the toys, but once they start to signify things, you have to turn them over to the adults. Things can be metaphors but it doesn't mean they stop being what they actually, physically, concretely are. Yes, surviving the trauma of the Dresden firebombing can cause a person to feel untethered as life's random events pass them by. But listen: Billy Pilgrim is literally unstuck in time. The aliens are literally aliens. Only fools can pretend that Slaughterhouse-Five and 1984 and Frankenstein and Looking Backward and even Beowulf are, first and foremost, anything but genre works.
Back in the 90s, I decided to attend a graduate creative writing program. Here's how I quickly got over that bad idea.
My writing portfolio consisted mostly of several "mainstream" short stories. These were bland, listless stories of middle-class white suburban ennui where not much really happened. I didn't much like writing this stuff but I knew it was the preferred writing sample for academe. Style over plot -- way over. See, lots of creative writing professors read Raymond Carver and other minimalist writers from the 70s and 80s and, frankly, got stuck there. (Reconsidering that fiction today, I find most of it about as dated and ill-fitting as my old Members-Only jacket ... note to self: get that old thing to Goodwill, and pronto).
One afternoon I got a phone call from the director of a major writing program in the southeast. He liked my work and thought I'd make an excellent addition to their program. But he refused to formally accept me until I resubmitted my portfolio without "that silly Mars thing." His acid condescension practically melted my telephone.
Sure, I could've churned out another derivative "mainstream" knock-off. But I asked myself: why would I wanna be in a program whose instructors would mindlessly belittle the stories I wanted to tell most? So I ditched those plans. Chose another path. Worked hard at it.
That "silly Mars thing," a couple of revisions later, landed me on the cover of a major science-fiction magazine alongside great writers such as Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Harlan Ellison. I got more readers and made more money off that one yarn than most "literary" writers will ever see in a lifetime (this I know because most of my literary friends said so, and with much envy, not just for the exposure and moola, but because many of them are closeted sci-fi fans). I thought about sending that program director a copy of the magazine but decided he wasn't even worth the postage.
My point? Do what you gotta do. Screw the labels. If somebody hates sci-fi but suddenly respects it if ya call it "speculative fiction" or "magical realism," remember that their delusions do not have to become yours.
Here's the big secret: deep down, 99 percent of us love this stuff. And we're always looking for the next good story to remind us why.