I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.
“Oh,” someone says, “so you’re a writer?” His or her eyes light up with admiration. “What kind of things do you write?”
When I answer, “science fiction,” the person’s face goes blank, they nod slowly, and then they say something politely dismissive along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice.” With just two words, my position on the cultural totem pole goes from somewhere near Hemingway down to somewhere near the person who corners you at a party to talk about UFO conspiracies.
When you type up a story, you’re just a writer, just a person with an idea in their head, with some story to tell. But when you get around to the business of selling a finished piece, you have to choose a team. And while there’s a wide array of divisions and sub-divisions in the publishing marketplace for fiction (for non-writers out there, think the sections you see in a Barnes & Noble), when you get right down to it there are only two buckets: genre fiction and literature. And for someone like me, this really stinks, because I’m what you call a tweener.
I’m the guy in high school who enjoyed sports but also hung out with the odd-dressing, screw-everything crowd, who loved B.B. King as much as the Sex Pistols, who had friends in nearly every social circle. As an adult, I’m the English Composition major who loves science fiction, equal parts literary snob and genre nerd. A walking contradiction, welcome to my world.
As a writer, being a tweener sucks. It’s like straddling a kind of literary Chinese Wall where a fair amount of people on both sides have little interest in — and often contempt for — the territory beyond their homeland. For too many of the folks on one side the wall, it’s a waste of time to read (much less love) the snooty, more-style-than-story literary works of Joyce Carol Oates or Zadie Smith or Tobias Wolff. And for the other side, science fiction is a literary ghetto, a dumping ground for sub-standard fiction, a file drawer that Kurt Vonnegut once famously said serious critics regularly mistake for a urinal.
For reasons that are as much commercial as cultural, you can’t straddle the wall indefinitely. At some point you have to choose which side is yours, and the home I chose was science fiction. Why? Because Isaac Asimov’s idea of psychohistory turned my teenage brain upside-down. Because Ray Bradbury fired my imagination. Because 1984 blew me away. Because William Gibson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ian McDonald. Simply put, science fiction is the literature (yes, I said it) that’s closest to my heart.
It’s a funny thing, though. When I jumped off the wall and landed on the SF side, I noticed something. The wall wasn’t solid. There were large holes that had been created by people on both sides, chiseling away little by little. And there were people crossing back and forth through the gaps, distributing subversive literature like the SF issue of The New Yorker, short stories by George Saunders, novels by Philip K. Dick, and other works that refused to play the zero-sum SF-versus-literature game.
The wall still doesn’t have enough holes, though, and there aren’t nearly enough people passing through the existing ones. But I just heard a woman on the literary side discussing Heinlein without sarcasm, and I noticed a man on my side talking about Salman Rushdie without rolling his eyes. And for a tweener like me, that made my day.