Genre fiction has always been aimed at the Outsider, at the person with enough distance from the dominant culture to think critically about it.

It’s just that our definition of Outsider has expanded.

When I was a kid, I felt like an Outsider because I was clumsy and nerdy and socially awkward. The school’s hierarchy enforced that status: football players were in, science geeks were out. Genre fiction was pitched directly at me, giving me an escape from social rejection and poverty and feeding into the sense of wonder I held about the world around me.

I never thought about the fact that, as a white male, the ladder I felt myself to be on the low rungs of was already placed far over the heads of other groups.

As an adult, I no longer feel like an Outsider. Though I undoubtedly am an Outsider when in certain company — I’m an atheist, which puts me out from most of the American populace, and a programmer, which makes my work boring to most people — I don’t feel like one day in and day out.

I’ve come to realize that there are other people who feel much more like Outsiders than I ever did, and that while my Outsider-status has diminished with adulthood, theirs has likely only been enhanced, as their life experiences diverge from what’s considered acceptable in wider society.

These people — women*, people of color, the LBGT community — deserve genre fiction that speaks to them, that talks about their experiences as Outsiders (and Insiders**), that addresses their issues and their needs. I’m glad to see my favorite section of the bookstore embracing them, proud to see us growing up as a subculture.

I still enjoy this fiction, even though I’m straight, and white, and male. Because I remember being the kid that didn’t fit in, that no one wanted to play with, that adults felt uncomfortable around and kids didn’t want to talk to. Sci-fi and fantasy was there for me, and it can and should be there for others, as long as there are outsiders that need it.

The Imagination is a big place. there’s room for all of us.


* Which, holy shit, that half of the population should be sidelined in pop culture for so long is mind-boggling
** Everyone that belongs to a subculture outside the norm is automatically an Insider for that subculture

Genre vs Literary Fiction

How can we tell genre fiction from literary fiction? It’s not enough to add some spaceships and call it science fiction. Nor does putting it in a medieval setting automatically make it fantasy.

I think one part of the difference is that genre fiction seems mainly concerned with jobs, and exciting things happening while people are working those jobs: noble, soldier, scientist, private eye.

Literary fiction is less concerned with jobs, and more concerned with life outside of work: families, holidays, dating. Work is implicitly boring, an obstacle to be overcome.

It’s two polar views of the human condition. In one, work is a calling, and the moral questions revolve around what kind of people get called and how they respond to their calling. In the other, work is background. It’s something that may create conflict, but it’s not usually central to the story.

In other words, fiction written in genre circumstances that doesn’t revolve around work as a calling feels literary, even if it’s set in a far-off alien landscape.

Hence Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which could have been written as genre fiction, following the career of a scientist toward a breakthrough in cheap solar power, but instead is written in a literary style, more concerned with his life outside of his work and what that says about him.

There’s also Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, which is sold as literary fiction but to me reads like genre: the central plot-line is the construction of the cathedral, and those called to build it. Characters move in and out of the narrative according to their impact on the cathedral’s construction, and there’s a lot of science-fiction-style description of building techniques.