A writer I know is shopping a fantasy novel to publishers. The first thing an editor wants to know is whether it's fantasy or speculative fiction. My friend doesn't have a good answer because she doesn't really understand the difference. Why should she? She just writes the things; she doesn't have to market them. These category questions are marketing ones, not literary ones.
I have known a lot of writers and I have never known a single one to set out on a book thinking, "The goal of this project is to be an exemplar of genre X." They only think, "I want to tell a story about Y." The pigeonholing only comes after you are done and it comes from other people.
So it's odd that protests about the seriousness or significance of the various genres are so passionately mounted by writers themselves. It's amazing how the question of genre category, and especially the definition of "literary" fiction, is still sparking more passion and frank upset among writers and fans than any subject (except perhaps gender, and the two are not unrelated, since some genres are associated with genders; "hard" sci-fi with men, paranormal romance with women, etc). Every day I read angry e-mails and posts from sci-fi writers complaining about the terrible snobbery and irrelevance of the literary establishment who still don't give major awards to the speculative or fantastical, or give it enough review space in the books pages of newspapers. And how do the snobby lit-heads get to claim The Road by Cormac McCarthy as one of theirs, when it's clearly one of ours?
There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of genre divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish genres or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don't.
The other odd thing about this widely shared sense of injustice is that the injustice is mythical. The Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and Twilight books are among the best-selling works of fiction of all time. How much better can life get for the fantasists? The scorn of the haughty, high-minded literati is also imaginary. I have never, ever, not once, met a writer who said he or she would never read a mystery or a story set in some imagined future.
In fact, we all do so all the time, without thinking about category. This is the point of a recent article on a geek blog called i09 (it's part of the Gawker online-magazine empire and it specializes in sci-fi culture and pop science). The piece by editor Charlie Jane Anders, herself a sci-fi author, called "10 Great Books You Didn't Know Were Science Fiction Or Fantasy," has been much circulated among spec-fic fans. Why I've seen so many links to it is a bit of a mystery, since its point is and always has been obvious. "These days, it seems like every other literary novel has speculative-fiction ideas buried in it," writes Anders. "This isn't a trend that suddenly burst out of nowhere – 'literary' writers have been playing with fantastical notions forever." She proceeds to list a number of famous or even canonical "literary" novels with magical or surreal or futurist elements. They include Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Why does this argument even need to be made? Anyone who has set out to invent a purely imaginary story knows that the whole thing is fantasy, from beginning to end; there must be a sense of magic created about the most restrained of naturalism. To render poetically even the most mundane of domestic scenes requires a focus on the odd detail, the non-sequitur, the haunting, that is always veering close to dream. Satire requires exaggeration that is ever close to futurology; interior landscapes always involve some hallucinatory element; the archest of postmodern experiments involve references to noir detective clichés or ghosts.
Comments on Anders's article display a great knowledge of the various subheadings that publishers and booksellers give to works of fiction – hard sci-fi, historical fantasy, slipstream, magic realism – and they reflect a deep need for categorization, and a protectiveness, a concern that the best works be claimed as "one of ours." You know what? We all enjoy Cormac McCarthy. Leave the category debates to the marketing department. The rest of us are all actually on the same team and we're all working on the speculative and fantastical.