Why Are Some Books Considered Literature While Others Are Science Fiction?

Swirling thoughts like dervishes in cinnamon colored coats are spinning in my head this morning.

You have been forewarned.

I have been reading “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass. In this book, he talks about how some writers who are considered to be literary authors have written “breakout” novels that are science fiction. And how this bums out some science fiction authors. He writes that he believes that while there are many very good authors with outstanding works in the science fiction genre, they don’t always achieve a level of amazing success because the stories are dark and have unsympathetic characters. Maass writes:

“Readers love speculative elements, but even more they love a layered, high-stakes story about sympathetic characters who have problems with which anyone can identify. Perhaps that is why mainstream writers more often break out with speculative elements than dark-toned, hard-edged speculative novelists in the mainstream.”

I am trying to wrap my head around the whole this because it sounds to me like he is saying that The Handmaid’s Tale and The Sparrow are more upbeat than most science fiction and have more sympathetic characters and I am not sure that I agree with this. Earlier in “Writing the Breakout Novel”, Maass validates the idea that scifi writers sometimes get ghettoized and then kind of says that scifi writers shouldn’t be down on The Handmaids Tale but rather write more upbeat stuff. I thought The Handmaids Tale was good, but not particularly upbeat. Also, there are some scifi authors who are just plain old knock your socks off and are upbeat. Connie Willis (who has won nine or ten hugos) springs to mind. But even Connie Willis has not experienced mega sales. Nancy Purl in her book, Book Lust, calls Connie Willis an author not to miss and singles her out rather than including her as one of the recommendations in science fiction.

Yesterday I was at the mega-chain bookstore where I work part time. Marketing has been proposed by some folks as what will make a book huge. I talked books for a solid four hours yesterday. Jim Butcher’s newest is out. Jim Butcher finally now merits an actual display. Probably because they made his Dresden series into a television show and sales of his books were up last year. I am mentioning this because marketing seems a capricious thing unless based on sales. I can honestly say that the publishers sink money into authors who have a following and whose books have sold in the past. Mega chains have buyers who talk to publishing reps and everybody figures out a print schedule for books. Sometimes it is accurate and sometimes not. I have seen the books of reeeaaaallly big authors over printed and end up as bargain six months later. Bargain books sometimes are an indication of the anticipated mega-hit that didn’t happen six months prior. Most authors don’t get much of any kind of marketing. At least not marketing that originates from bookstores and publishers– but they get marketing from people who read their books whether it is good or bad. So I am not so certain that the marketing that comes from categorizing matters– except that readers who won’t go near scifi with a ten foot barge pole will read scifi from the lit section.

I do think most authors kind of labor in a type of obscurity, even if published, and if marketing helps to get them seen by people and entices risk avoiding readers to try their books that is good, but I am not so certain marketing is the holy grail.

If you are a writer and had the chance to be published under the literature category, as say Chabon, Atwood, or Mary Doria Russell, or under science fiction, which would you choose? Why? Would it matter? What would have happened to Salman Rushdie’s career if he had been published under science fiction? What would have happened if Connie Willis had been first lumped in literature?

Carrying the what-if’s further. What if John Scalzi wasn’t such a nice guy with a really funny blog?

I don’t have answers. More or less exploring the topic and wondering about stuff. I was kind of wondering if anyone had any ideas on why some books that are science fiction/fantasy end up in literature and others that are equally as good are science fiction. I was trying to see if anyone had any theories on this.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that categories are bad. And arbitrary, but they have loads attached to them. Not a new conclusion for me. Science fiction has a bad reputation and turns some readers off. But there are gobs of science fiction and fantasy in the literature section.

Carrying this farther, should a writer cater his/her writing to the audience? Yes and no. I think a writer needs to write what they feel impassioned about and tell a good story, but I also think that if they cannot find a publisher or an audience they aren’t going to be writing for long. I don’t think anyone should try to imitate another author or aim for a category that isn’t in keeping with their writing style or the stories they want to tell, it would be false. Inauthentic. The writing would be derivative and just plain lacking. I think if a writer can dig deep in themselves and write fearlessly, something good will come out. People encapsulate their lives in stories and thoughts are the front soldiers for passionate beliefs.

If you are a writer, where do you think that your ideas come from? What do you think is necessary for an author to make a standout book? What is the line of delineation between a midlist book and a “breakout” book?

So I am not reaching conclusions, just tossing out my thoughts on the table. I am not sure there are conclusions to be reached, but the exploration of ideas might be worth the effort. It is giving me a place to work from to edge my ideas and writing up. Thoughts proceed other stuff for me.