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Update; On Writing Different Genres

Monday, April 6th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Last week I had no figures at hand regarding children and teen reading rates. A 2007 National Endowment of the Humanities report on the topic is available here in pdf format (number 47). The short version is that the reading rate is not declining for children, but that as teenagers increasing numbers of kids stop reading. The 20-page executive summary does not define what they mean by “literary reading,” but in the summary for report 46, it’s given as “The reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet. Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry.

Also, I inadvertently posted an outdated bestseller list. Here is the most recent PW children’s fiction list online; the ABA’s indie children’s bestseller lists overlap but are not identical. Both are heavily weighted toward fantasy, and this is even more true of the series lists.


Yesterday (my yesterday; I’m 8 hours ahead of EST) Theo asked about subgenre preferences. I write in several different subgenres ranging from mythological fantasy to hard sf, and all writing is difficult, as far as I’m concerned. I do think there are differences, but first, a quibble, terminological or semantic as you prefer: all fiction is fantasy. Those of us of Indoeuropean linguistic and cultural affiliation participate in a set of related literary traditions who knows how many millennia deep, in which there are major narrative genres consisting of stories not considered true. This isn’t so in all other parts of the world. Academic folklore (a Western, mostly Indoeuropean invention) has even hung itself up on the analytic criteria of “belief” and whether believing or not believing in a story’s contents is a universal definitional criterion. It isn’t. Quite a few literary traditions admit only true narratives (what is meant by true is a more complex matter than it would be for us, but that’s another topic).

I bring this up partly because it seems that the sf/f genre subdivisions, and some of the arguments about the same, and some of the relative difficulties writing the same, are rooted in this deep IE literary division between true and untrue stories. Fantasy is stories about things that could never happen, while sf is about things that, based on what we can extrapolate from what we know now, might conceivably happen. I’ve heard many a sniff from hard-core sf readers that fantasy is a degraded genre because “anything can happen,” and “you can make it all up.” Excuse me, but I’m a fiction writer, and I can make it all up. By definition even the most rigorously extrapolated (read: imagined) future is never going to happen; at the level of content it’s all “what if?”

At the level of execution, however, subgenres do use different sets of literary conventions. Sf has an extra set of formal rules that have to do with narrative treatment of the physical world: its workings have to seem as if they could be true. That statement has all kinds of qualifications which I won’t get into right now; the relevant point here is that those can make the writing of it harder, but don’t necessarily do so.

The difficulties, for me (getting around at last to that), arise less from the rules per se and more from their interaction with other aspects of story setting. In most fantasy, the setting is not that different from present-day mainstream US consensus reality, in which I include our common cultural heritage. The story is full of recognizable objects: house, rock, water, tree, cloth. The writer may tinker with the boundaries of certain qualities, for example that between animacy and inanimacy, but both are completely familiar concepts. Animate houses or swords may not belong to the reality that most of us inhabit, but the reader still pretty much knows how to imagine them, because all the elements are familiar.

My mythological fantasy Bear Daughter was in many ways easier to write than much else I’ve done, because I knew most of the pieces of it in advance. It was based largely on a non-consensus mythic tradition, but one very familiar to me. I would have said the story and its setting were fairly transparent. Some readers did not think so, and one reviewer said it was more alien and difficult to comprehend than far-future sf. It contained too many unfamiliar concepts for her; the magic and the magical beings didn’t behave like mainstream-consensus elves and talking animals.

I’ve written earth-based near-future sf in which most of the setting is the familiar here-and-now, just add aliens. The way sf conventions required me to extrapolate about those aliens and the consequences of their actions was an extra set of rules I had to follow, but not a particularly problematic one.

The setting of my recent space opera novella “Pelago,” in contrast, had to be completely re-imagined. It was set inside an AI-slash-space artifact, and information, its movement, and impediments to same were crucial to the progression of the story. I couldn’t get my characters through a doorway without knowing how much the doorway knew, and how it felt, about their genetic makeup. Since I had set myself to follow hard-sf rules, I couldn’t just wave my hands and say, “The space artifact is animate, and knows all!”; I needed a believable. it-could-be-true technology through which the artifact could know these things. That technology (which counts as part of the story setting) had all kinds of other ramifications for setting and characters and story progression. Making that as consistent as possible was a constant battle. Plus, once you change your setting that radically, you have to devote much more of the story to making the setting comprehensible to the reader. Yes, writing that kind of sf is much harder than writing any story, fantasy or sf, in which a door is just a door.

While writing “Pelago,” another challenge for me that, say, a physicist wouldn’t have faced, was making sure my space artifact (and the people on it) behaved according to conventional physics when that was appropriate. But that, I think, is in principle not that much different than knowing when the full moon rises, which in turn harks back to the issue of appropriate verisimilitude that has been discussed here before.

I think the issue Theo mentions, of the present changing too fast for sf to keep up, is a valid one, but probably applies more to near-future sf than other kinds, because that sub-subgenre directly invokes the present. Far-future sf has a much stronger admixture of “what if?”, making it in that respect more like fantasy.


  1. It is certainly true that the present is unlikely to catch up to Excession any time soon.

    China Mieville once made the distinction between science fiction and fantasy like this:

    What is the difference between science and magic? In real life, loads. In SF, I think the question’s misleading, because I think that whatever SF may think and claim, and however much individual books may justly pride themselves on scientific accuracy, fundamentally the genre is not predicated on ‘real’ science at all. It’s about apparently authoritative use of supposed scientific language, or, to put it another way, bullshitting. And that is not (necessarily) a dis.

    Which is something I quite like. All of it’s made up; the difference is that science fiction appropriates a technical vocabulary that makes it sound true(ish), where fantasy is under no obligation to do so.

    It’s weird, though; when I was writing my book, I wanted it to be fantasy, but I kept finding myself hung up on the ramifications of particular fantastic elements. If I want such and such a thing to be able to happen, what does that mean about the universe? What is that world like, if it’s possible to, say reanimate the dead?

    Comment by braak - April 7, 2009 11:33 am

  2. I don’t think that exploring the ramifications of your fantastic elements is sf-nal; it’s just good world-building. I think there’s an sf “attitude” that to a significant degree resides in style and diction. An example is Walter Jon William’s Metropolitan and City on Fire, which some people took as sf, but are emphatically (as he affirmed to me) fantasy. The tropes and the root assumptions are all fantastic ones, but the treatment within the story feels like sf. You have an urban setting in which magic power accumulates in buildings… but a lot of the story is about public utilities and bureaucracy dealing with magic. A comparable but still quite different take is Rachel Pollack’s work, especially Temporary Agency. Geez, maybe this is worth a post in and of itself.

    Comment by Judith Berman - April 12, 2009 2:03 am

  3. […] much Black Gate fiction), I’d like to detour today into some quite different fantasylands. A comment by braak last week on the differences between sf and fantasy started me thinking about fantasy works in […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Strange Cities - April 14, 2009 4:12 am

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