This is what I was attempting to get at in my earlier brief post. We write within and against genre; it’s hard for me to imagine a writer setting pen to paper without some at least implicit conception of a genre within which she is writing.
Imagine me, John. (I know you can, if you try.)
I do not think about genre when I’m writing, unless I’m writing by invitation to a specific market or an anthology.
I occasionally think of genre when I’m editing or revising, but only in the context of figuring out where I might sell the finished piece.
Paul Di Filippo
If I can chime in with John about the impossibility of writing from a blank mental canvas, whilst simultaneously touting my own work in a way I hope might amuse the panelists, let me point folks toward this essay of mine from F&SF, now over a dozen years old, which tries to imagine a writer so innocent and naive of genre that his work was absolutely unprecedented.
One of my proudest recent moments occurred when fellow panelist Gary Wolfe opined in Locus that my story “Yes We Have No Bananas” blended so many genres and tropes so oddly that it was almost impossible to categorize. That’s what we shoot for!
Ellen: I don’t believe you 🙂
Seriously, I think that “genre” is the basic way we create fiction. By “genre,” I mean some set of narrative expectations, tropes, limitations on choices that we receive (and internalize) from our reading of other work. I mean FORM. We may work against genre (I almost always do, while at the same time working within it) but we are at some subconscious level aware of it when we make, moment to moment, the choices we make to tell a story.
What is “originality” other than the choice to work against our perception of a received genre, or our way of embodying genre elements in a new context?
About the original question, the term “speculative fiction”: I always think of this term in the way that Robert Heinlein intended when he originated it, or in the way Judith Merrill applied in her anthologies a decade later. The current usage of the term as an umbrella term for a grab-bag of fantastic genres does not appeal to me. In what way is a vampire story, or a quest fantasy, speculative fiction?
Gary K. Wolfe
And you’re more than welcome, Paul!
But it’s becoming clear from this discussion that some writers are more conscious of genre than others when sitting down to a blank screen, and I’m beginning to wonder if “genre” is even an adequate term to describe fantastic literature, or a particularly useful one. Mysteries, westerns, romances–those are pretty clear genres with pretty clear narrative conventions. But the fantastic isn’t like that; there may be conventions, but as Paul’s story demonstrates, those conventions can be tossed up like a deck of cards and rearranged endlessly.
I’d like to know not if people think about genre, but if they think about the fantastic when setting out. The fantastic seems to be a line that, when crossed, can’t be crossed back. You can move a mimetic narrative into SF, the way Lessing does with The Four-Gated City, or move an historical novel into fantasy, the way Cecelia does with Kings of the North, but you can’t really move it back again, short of some dumb “it was all a dream” trick. The fantastic, it seems to me, is an entirely different mode, not just a genre.
Or for that matter, in what way is historical fiction not speculative fiction?