I was flipping through the November issue of Locus a few days ago, ensconced on my couch and trying to get over an unpleasant cold, when I came across Gardener Dozois’s review of “Dream of the Arrow,” a mainstream story by Jay Lake that was in Subterranean’s Summer 2010 Issue. Mr. Dozois says this story is:
…a story good enough to suggest that Lake’s talents may be wasted working in the genre, as he has the literary chops to make it as a significant mainstream author instead.”
Since I’ve become more educated in the field, I have grown accustomed to the speculative genre being dismissed and marginalized. I had no idea of any such stigma before my decision to pursue writing seriously, in spite of spending nearly twenty years making a beeline to the science fiction section of any library or bookstore I happened to enter, but I’m certainly not arguing that it doesn’t exist. Usually when I encounter such sentiments, I blink, shrug, and move on.
But I was actually shocked when I read the above quotation in Locus. For those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the science fiction and fantasy community, Locus is the trade magazine of the field, and Mr. Dozois is a highly respected writer, editor, and anthologist in the field. He’s won twenty Hugo awards for his work in professional editing, which should give you some idea of his stature. And yet, even so, his comment seems to imply that genre writing is in some way not as inherently worthwhile as mainstream (aka literary) writing.
Let’s unpack this quote a little further, shall we? If it were merely a question of suggesting that Lake might consider a career as a mainstream author due to his particular talent for it, I wouldn’t have paused. I have no doubt Lake has the abilities to become a literary author if that’s what he wants to do (whether or not he would achieve critical acclaim for it is another question, but not one connected to his abilities as a writer). There is also no discussion of the possible merits of Lake’s speculative novels being shelved in the general fiction shelves as have books by such crossover successes as Susanna Clarke, Isabel Allende, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
What we get instead is the idea that Lake is wasting his talents working in science fiction and fantasy, and with this idea, I must respectfully disagree. As a reader, I want variety in my speculative fiction, and I want to read speculative books written by authors with literary chops. I balk at the implication (perhaps unintended) that writers only work in the science fiction field because they don’t have the ability to do otherwise. The last thing our field needs is internal ghettoization; we get enough flak from the outside.
I’m proud to be a science fiction and fantasy writer, and I don’t write in those genres because I think it’s easier. For me personally, writing in the speculative genres is more difficult (world building, I’m looking at you). I don’t feel the need to apologize for the kinds of stories, worlds, and structures I find interesting and compelling.
Now Lake, of course, can do whatever he wants. An author makes the decision on what genre to write within based on any of a number of factors (financial gain, critical acclaim, artistic inspiration or satisfaction, etc.) If Lake wishes to make the leap over into mainstream fiction, I would certainly support that decision (and really, it’s none of my business). But if he spends his entire career writing in the speculative genres, I believe his creative contribution will be just as valuable.