The genre with which a piece is labeled — literary fiction, fantasy/science fiction, speculative fiction, romance, mystery — does a lot more than try to describe what kind of structure of setting the piece uses.
I’ve written before about my hesitence to label genre in the way that people tend to label genre, about my dislike of certain terms. Certainly I hold by that, and I think fiction writing in general would be well-served by a more visible blending of genre. But these labels are somewhat important for describing other things about a piece, because they set conventions in which the piece is to be taken, and they help define an audience.
For example, there are very important conventional differences in writing speculative fiction (of any kind) and “literary” fiction that affects how a piece might be written — and read. In his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card writes:
…We don’t know what a seed village is. And [Octavia] Butler [in Wild Seed] doesn’t tell us — because Doro, who knows perfectly well what a seed village is, wouldn’t stop and think about that information right now. […]
This principle of abeyance is one of the protocols of reading speculative fiction that makes it difficult for some people who aren’t familiar with the genre to grasp what’s going on. Experienced sf readers recognize that they don’t know what a seed village is, and that the author doesn’t expect them to know. Instead, this is one of the differences, one of the things that is strange in this created world, and the author will in due course explain what the term means.
But the reader who is inexperienced in sf thinks that the author expects him to already know what a seed village is. He stops cold, trying to guess what the term means from its context. But he can’t guess, because there isn’t enough context yet. Instead of holding the information in abeyance like a small mystery, he is just as likely to think that either the writer is so clumsy that she doesn’t know how to communicate well, or that this novel is so esoteric that its readers are expected to know uncommon terms tht aren’t even in the dictionary.
This is one of the read boundaries between sf and non-sf writing. Science fiction and fantasy writers handle exposition this way, by dropping in occasional terms as the viewpoint character thinks of them, and explaining them only later. The sf reader doesn’t expect to receive a complete picture of the world all at once. Rather he builds up his own picture bit by bit from clues within the text. […]
[Implication], again, is one of the protocols of reading sf. The reader is expected to extrapolate, to find the implied information contained in new words. The classic example is Robert Heinlein’s phrase “The door dilated.” No explanation of the technology; the character doesn’t think, “Good heavens! A dilating door!” Instead, the reader is told not only that doors in this place dilate, irising open in all directions at once, but also that the character takes this fact for granted. The implication is that many — perhaps all — doors in this place dilate, and that they have been doing it for long enough that nobody pays attention to it anymore. (91-92)
There’s another such convention that I’ve encountered a lot in speculative fiction: because in much of it, the reader is experiencing a whole new world (whether a variation on ours or something entirely different), there will sometimes be details mentioned in the text about some aspect of the world that doesn’t directly pertain to the story at hand. Far from taking away from the story by distracting the reader, this is meant to enrich the world, to show that there really is more going on in this place than just the story you’re reading. It reveals that the world is alive, gives it depth and makes it real.
But this really is, apparently, something not done in other genres. There have been a few occasions in my classes where one person will say a detail distracted them because it wasn’t important, or that a piece of information wasn’t explained well when it first appeared. I always find these happenings to add to a story, to show the world being alive or to allow me to build the world up in my mind.
Some of these conventions are aspects of speculative fiction that I really like. It gives a lot of credit to the reader, who slowly — and even unconsciously — picks up details about the world and builds it up in their mind, so that the story is taking place in a very real setting.
But if you’re an audience that’s not used to those conventions, to that genre, it might not work as well.
Today, I had the outline and first chapter of my high fantasy pirate queer-influenced novel, Shadow of Death, workshopped in class. Given the subject matter and the somewhat convoluted plot I’d outlined — that is, the genre and several subgenres — I wasn’t sure how people were going to like it.
I was pleasantly surprised when most people were excited about the story, about the magic and pirates and gay character whose gayness wasn’t made a big deal of. And this isn’t the first time this has happened — past stories of mine that are clearly outside the realm of pure “literary fiction” have been met fairly well. (And yes, several classmates have at least some experience with speculative fiction, but also others don’t.)
It’s reassuring to me that a more “mainstream” “fiction” audience might enjoy my work.
However, two problems arise:
Fiction readers might enjoy it for what it is, perhaps as something they don’t see often so it looks all new and shiny. But what about my main audience — speculative fiction readers? Will it be, to them, more of the same? Will it stand out?
And also, if my book is speculative fiction and labeled as such, would any non-sf readers — those that I have established might actually enjoy it — ever pick it up? It seems unlikely.
Finding the right audience for a novel like this will make or break its ability to succeed, because the audience will make all the difference.