Long-winded Thoughts on Nomenclature

26 Jan

So this is a nerd blog, right? And of all the species of nerds, I’m undoubtedly, unquestionably, first and foremost, a booknerd. Books. Mmm. Books, booky book books. I could talk about them all day. And I have. And I probably will again. True to type, though, I read mostly science fiction. Some fantasy, some horror. Right now I’m trying to work my way through the whole list of Pulitzer winners. You know, just for giggles. I quite enjoy historical nonfiction stuff, too, lots of biographies and science books and things about abandoned hospitals (don’t ask). But I’ll read whatever. If it’s been collated, I will probably at least peruse it.

However.

I’m deeply irked by the label Speculative Fiction. There’s a lot of wiggle room on the term “speculative” in the first place. Isn’t all fiction, by its very nature, speculation? Isn’t that what the whole thing is about? In a meta-sense? In an it’s-humanity’s-duty-to-tell-stories kind of way? The Speculative Literature Foundation (I’m not even kidding) defines the genre as “Any piece of literature containing a fabulist or speculative element.” Could they just go ahead and make my point for me? It would save you guys a lot of reading.

I worked for a huge chain bookstore for a long time. And (disclaimer) I’m bound to say some nasty shit about them so I won’t name names, but it’s the only one still standing after the Amazon and e-book revolutions. The one with the green signs? And the shitty coffee? And the & in the middle? You know the one. Anyway, they sell tons of scifi and fantasy, so they put them off to one side in their own little section. With the graphic novels. Between self-help and romance, which seems either really insensitive or just outright mean. What a weird cross-section of humanity. Walking past those few aisles is so fucking pitiful I can’t even stand it. So ten thousand times I’d get some college freshman standing lost and confused in the scifi/fantasy aisle asking me “Where are Dracula and Frankenstein? I need them for a class. They should be right here.” And I’d say, “No, no, come along, moron. Let’s go to the Literature section.”

First of all, as a point of etiquette, don’t wait until the last minute to buy your books for class from the only bookstore in town. They will not be prepared for forty kids to come in all on one day. Just so you know. Secondly, Dracula and Frankenstein are both horror novels and do not, by any stretch of the imagination, belong in scifi/fantasy. And finally, what the fuck does “Literature” even mean in this context? Comparatively speaking? Does that mean that scifi/fantasy or romance or mystery aren’t good enough to be Literature-with-a-capital-L? What do you call them then? Books? Stories? Tales? Yarns? The term Literature carries this onus of heady intellectualism which is completely arbitrary and made up. It’s an invalid connotation of some sort of classicism, one that can be used against people. Note the two different reactions I usually get in the following situations:

I have an English degree.

– Oh. That means you read a lot, right?

vs.

I have a Literature degree.

– Wow, that’s really interesting. Tell me about Shakespeare.

Sigh. Yes, I read a lot. Also, fuck Shakespeare. I’ll get crucified for saying that, but the guy was a hack and I stand by my statement. But you see my point? It’s the word. Not even the whole word. The capitalization of the word. You can hear it when people say it out loud. Drives me batshit crazy. So when I capitalize these somewhat subjective categories, please know that I’m doing it in the Big Evil Green-signed Bookstore Chain way and not in an I-have-a-literature-degree sense. I’m bitter, not pretentious. For the record.

Here’s the thing: I’ve always had a problem with these labels, specifically “scifi/fantasy.” It’s that slash. These are two separate entities. This is not an and/or/if/then slash-worthy situation. When you say it out loud, it’s different. It’s like a pause: “I read scifi, fantasy, horror, computer manuals…” You see? But when you write it down it becomes amalgamated. That’s the issue here. And I understand that this is trickle-down vernacular. It comes straight from the marketing imps of Satan who lump scifi and fantasy together because of the fan base overlap. Like how Velcro gets put in the same category as all the other lowly hook-and-loop tape. Urm. Sort of. For the most part, the bottom line is that bookstores don‘t want to split up an author‘s work. They want to be able to put everything in one category so that shoppers only have to look in one place. Take Stephen King. (And let me preface this part of my little rant by saying that I have a deep and abiding love for Mr. King that borders on unnatural. But that’s a whole different blog. We’ll get to it, friends. Fret not.) So Stephen King has written mostly what would be conventionally labeled horror. With a few really notable, important exceptions: the seven books in the Dark Tower series, Eyes of the Dragon, and the graphic novels all fall squarely into the fantasy category. But one has to file all of these under Literature so as to keep them all together on the shelf. Because some fuckwit can’t be bothered to walk two aisles over and find the K’s again. This is why America is obese, people. Because those tricksy marketing bastards are calling all the shots.

I digress. Speculative-Fiction-seekers want to further confound this whole situation by just shoving everything somewhat wacky into one big mushy mess. A mess where Twilight seems to be invited to the party. And that, frankly, is not a party I want to go to. I like my categorical language neat and tidy, right? Science fiction has to have some science in it. Or something remotely science-y. I want robots and spaceships and lasers and germ warfare. Get it? Fantasy is a little more ethereal. Fantastic, if you will. Maidens, dragons, quests, swords, magic. Horror has all the delicious gory bits and the occasional ghost, possession or serial killer. Possibly a demon (but not a daemon, those go in fantasy). There are a few things that successfully cross the line. Star Wars had a princess, right? Albeit one who was apparently from some futuristic braless utopia. And the Force seemed like magic until Lucas fucked up and explained it all away with science (which is a bullshit maneuver to pull in a prequel, George – yeah, I said it). Blurry lines aside, to put everything in one big honking category is simply not ok. But if we’re going to conflate, let’s just go whole hog and really conflate, right? Screw mystery, scifi, classics, romance, Literature, and especially Speculative Fiction – get rid of them all. Label everything Fiction and be done with it. With a capital F.

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3 Responses to “Long-winded Thoughts on Nomenclature”

  1. Skye Matthews January 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Word! With a capital W!

  2. John Hensley March 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    And if you have an economics degree, they want to ask you about the (sigh) Stock Market.

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