One of our greatest speculative fiction writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, has never been one to turn down a fight. A genius in two of my favourite genres, science fiction and fantasy–especially planetary SciFi and magic-world fantasy–Le Guin has also left a legacy of well-placed words of power in various speeches, prefaces, and essays. In my Kindle edition of the short story collection, The Birthday of the World, there are some bonus resources, including an interview, advice to a young writer, and a fighting piece, “On Despising Genre,” that has one of my favourite opening lines ever, which I just had to tweet:
One of the great speculative fiction writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, on “genre”: “my attitude is that genre is A) an unpronounceable French word; B) a very useful descriptive tool; and C) a pernicious instrument of prejudice” (Le Guin, The Birthday of the World, p. 362)
— Brenton Dickieson, PhD (@BrentonDana) August 24, 2021
Well, yes. And Le Guin has no doubt been on the receiving end of the book industry’s pernicious habit of using phrases like “genre fiction writer,” “a popular author,” “just a fantasy writer,” and “surprisingly well-written for a science fiction novel” to reduce a writer of living books like Le Guin to a kind of literary side-street of questionable value. Genre designations for so many teachers, librarians, booksellers, and critics are not simply descriptions, but value judgements, as if knowing that something is “realistic fiction” means we know that is better than “romance.”
I agree that this is a pernicious trend. No matter how much I want to resist such balkanization of literatures, though, I am drawn into the phrase, “literary fiction.” I admit to unreasonable prejudices in my old piece, “My Secret Hierarchy of Writing,” Note that in my opening line I called Le Guin a “speculative fiction” writer. I think it is an excellent term for what she does, but I suspect that some of Margaret Atwood’s insistence on using the term in her essay collection, In Other Worlds, is because “science fiction”–also a good term for some of her work–has a toxic flavour on the tongues of the literati (of whom Atwood is a kind of royal figure). I have also subversively used “literary fiction” to describe C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, knowing what it evokes. But there is a cost to such language, and I continue to try to cleanse my soul of such nonsense.
This poignant piece by Le Guin is just such an antiseptic treatment. Le Guin tries to kill a number of literary cancers in this short article, but it is worth reading for the sheer force of imaginative will Le Guin uses to resist, as Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism and elsewhere, the presumption that realism is of a different qualitative category than genre fiction. It is worth a read, so I share it here in full, with some changes in paragraphing to highlight some of Le Guin’s most potent moments.
Basically my attitude is that genre is A) an unpronounceable French word; B) a very useful descriptive tool; and C) a pernicious instrument of prejudice.
Division of fiction into genres is like all classification, useful — useful to readers who like fiction of a certain kind or about certain subjects and want to know where to find it in a bookstore or library; and useful to critics and students and Common Readers who have realized that not all fictions are written in the same way with the same aesthetic equipment.
Genre has no use at all as a value category and should never be used as such.
But the concept or category of genre is used to evaluate fiction unread. To sort out the real books — that is, realistic fiction — from the “subliterature” — that is, everything else — every other kind of fiction written in this century. Everything but realism, including the very oldest and most widespread forms of story such as fantasy, gets shoved into a ghetto. I mostly live in ghettos. My fiction-ghettos are kiddilit, YA, regional, historical, SF, fantasy. I write realism too, but that’s not a ghetto, that’s Lit City. Where the real people live. At least it was until a bunch of subversive South Americans came along and made this barrio called Magic Realism, which kind of shook up the vanilla suburbs and in fact may have actually breached some ghetto walls. But magic realism gets shelved with realism. Why?
Genre categories are confirmed and perpetuated by the shelving practices of bookstores. Here in Portland, our Powell’s Books subcategorizes right down to Sea Stories — Napoleonic Era. Our Multnomah County Library is less detailed and invidious in gentrification-by-shelving. It sets apart only four genres from fiction as a whole: mystery, SF, Western, and YA. In “New Books” there are several genre shelves such as Suspense and Romance, but if thrillers and romances outlive the New Book category they get shelved in Fiction. The science fiction section includes fantasies and horror novels, neither of which belong there; the attitude apparently is, “This is irresponsibly imaginative so it’s SF.”
Not only is this practice incredibly invidious, randomly including some genres with the Real Books and excluding others, but it’s also shamelessly inconsistent: the librarians admit that they use personal evaluation of the quality of the book in deciding where to shelve it.
Tolkien is famous, so Tolkien gets shelved with Realism. But almost no SF gets de-ghettoized this way, because few librarians read enough SF or fantasy or know enough about it to pick out the books of “genuine literary value” from the commercial schlock.
Commercial schlock is not limited to genre fiction — and so fiction of absolutely no literary merit at all, commercial junk realism, gets shelved with Austen and Brontë and Woolf, while SF and fantasy of real merit and real interest gets treated as junk by definition.
No wonder writers like Kurt Vonnegut deny strenuously that their SF is SF — no wonder fantasists try to crawl under the magic realism label. They want respect.
Segregated shelving helps addicts find their fix. But couldn’t its convenience to readers in libraries be replaced by really good lists for addicts? Lists describe and make accessible without evaluating. Our library here in Portland — Multnomah County Library — has a wonderful “readers’ advisory binder” at the desk at the Central Library branch, listing all the popular genres and others I never would have thought of, such as baseball novels. Thrillers are divided into Spy, Legal, Techno, and Apocalyptic. Romance has seven subcategories: Family Saga, Gothic, Historical, Light, Period, Suspense, and Regency. I looked in vain for Bodice-Rippers. My two favorite subgenres were Novels About Older Women and Younger Men, and Seriously Humorous Mysteries. If we have to have segregated shelving, then it should be consistent. It should not shelve the “good” authors with “literature” and the “popular” ones in the genre ghetto.
Who decided popular was not good and good was not popular?
Of course there’s a lot of clearly commercial genre fiction — most long-running series mysteries; most modern fantasy trilogies; a terribly high percentage of romance novels; all Louis L’Amour — junk food at worst, comfort food at best. Little nourishment, much grease. But as soon as you get above the McBooks level, who makes the call? Only somebody who really reads in that field, really knows that field, can do it. An expert.
The reputation of the publisher means little anymore: all big publishers are intensely commercial, and most are subsidiaries of corporations that have no interest whatever in literature. Their lists are controlled by Barnes & Noble and Borders; their books are principally chosen not by editors but by the accounting department. What blurbs mean depends on the integrity of the blurber. How useful are critics and reviewers as a guide to quality in genre fiction? Almost useless, unless you read critics who know the field. Almost all literary and academic reviewers are appallingly ignorant of genre fiction, don’t know how to read it, and pride themselves on their ignorance. Kirkus and the other review factories tend to be fairly knowledgeable about mysteries and thrillers, totally erratic about science fiction, and blankly ignorant of most other genres, unless a Patrick O’Brian comes along and they have to admit he exists.
Some authors, they say, “transcend genre.” They say that about me, and I know they mean well, but I do not understand what they mean. If a book gets called or shelved with “literature” because you think it transcends its genre, the implication is, it’s good because it’s more like realism. So it would be even better, more literary, if it was entirely realistic.
Moby-Dick, or Frankenstein, or The Time Machine, or The Baron in the Trees, or The Lord of the Rings, or A Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Man in the High Castle, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or Carmen Dog, or The Dazzle of Day — would these books be better, be a “higher” form of literature, if all the events were mundane and all the characters were ordinary: if they were classifiable as realistic? Realism is not a standard of excellence in fiction. Realism is not an adequate definition of literature. To use it as such is to misread every kind of fiction except realism.
You can’t read Gulliver’s Travels the same way as you read War and Peace. That’s obvious to most critics and teachers — yet they try to read Tolkien the same way they read James Michener. No wonder they don’t get it!
Realism is a genre, just as fantasy is a genre or romance is a genre. It’s a recent one — much younger than either fantasy or romance. Though it’s a genre at which we in the West in the last couple of hundred years have excelled, there is no way in which it is superior to other genres — except in being more realistic. It is, accordingly, less imaginative, less mysterious, less romantic, less scientific, less magical, less Western, less thrilling, less. . .
As long as critics and the academy use realism as a single standard for the vast diversity of fictional modes, teachers will remain contemptuous of what most people read, ignorant of the particular beauties and devices of each genre, and incompetent to judge most fiction.
And libraries, by perpetuating shelving by genre, will perpetuate the bizarre and arbitrary limitation of literary fiction to one modern genre.
Why did I settle in the ghetto, or actually six or seven ghettos? Well, I knew what I was good at: telling stories, mostly, in a free range between realistic and imaginative fiction — including SF, fantasy, kiddilit, YA, historical, etc. All ghettos. And I had no intention of living in some fancy literary gated community just to get respect from the ignorant.
But I do value the respect of the interested and informed. And when I wrote SF, or fantasy, or for children, or for young adults, I got real criticism from people knowledgeable in that genre, and also heard directly from readers — which many novelists never do.
Genre and “popular” writers aren’t considered by their readers to be dead (an unfortunate side-effect of respectability). So, represented by an agent who was willing and able to sell work in any genre, and having some very broadminded editors, I could just sit around in Oregon and write. I had freedom. Why should I give that freedom up? What for? Well, I know what for, every time they give an award to another brand name novel, or some lady says to me,
“Oh, my son just loves your books — of course I don’t read Sci Fi.” And she stands there expecting me to say, “No, of course you don’t, you’re far too mature, intelligent, discerning, and, above all, tactful.”
Then I usually find out she thought I was Madeleine L’Engle, anyhow.
“If it’s SF it can’t be good; if it’s good it can’t be SF.”
And so they tell me that Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Dazzle of Day aren’t SF. What ignorance. But, for getting on to forty years now I’ve published literary fiction in genres considered sub-literary and, though it’s getting harder and harder, I have gotten away with it. And I go on writing in both respectable and despised genres because I respect them all, rejoice in their differences, and reject only the prejudice and ignorance that dismisses any book, unread, as not worth reading.