When I was just a little boy (tra la), I asked my mother, “How many slices are there in a pizza before it’s sliced?” She was evasive in her answer, so I set about discovering the truth myself. The next time we grabbed a pie to take home for dinner, I flipped the box while still in the back of the Oldsmobile, and opened it upside-down. Alas, I found no dotted lines on the underside of the crust. The mystery lingered, like the marinara stain on either side of my lap.
It had been some years since I considered the question. How pizzas should be, could be divided (into hexagons, or spirals followed by perpendicular cuts, producing slices like the chambers of a nautilus) no longer troubled me as before. Until last week, that is. Last week a certain Suvudu-guru asked if I might not be able “to write about how people should read more literary fiction or something.” I blinked at his email. Hadn’t I already read such a piece? Three sips of coffee later, I realized that I had: in fact I’d written it for Suvudu myself. That essay was a large, earnest undertaking, so profound in its insights that the SFF world is, I trust, still coming to grips with it. And very quietly, too.
The essay did, however, leave one problem unresolved: that of bookstore apartheid. SFF writers don’t like the fact that they’re forced to live in places where mainstream writers won’t even walk their dogs–those seedy townships around the corner from the cookbooks. And oddly enough, writers who poured their very souls into a literary effort aren’t clamoring to be shelved between, say, Battle of the Network Zombies and Barbarian Chicks & Demons II. Now you and I realize that this is only because such writers never have read Barbarian Chicks & Demons II. Yet the unease is real, and neither side shows much inclination to back down. Compromise has failed. It’s time for drastic action.
The first step, I submit, is to burn down the house. Abolish both labels, mainstream/literary and science fiction/fantasy, forever. Expunge them from our bookstores, our libraries, our E-Reader (or is it E-Stealer?) playlists, our hearts. Make us love one another. Squash us together and call it FICTION. What could be more elegant, more clear?
But hold on. What happens when we do away with the categories, but keep the practitioners? In the case of the Artists Formerly Known as SFF Writers, the answer’s obvious. They’ll divide again, before the day is out. And then again, and again, in an unstoppable fission reaction. This could bring disaster on us all.
Lest we find ourselves in possession of subgenres without genres–and a literary us without the comfort of a genre them to pity and despise–I suggest we take charge of this guaranteed splitting, and get it right from the outset. Here, then, are six progressive alternatives to the old, dull ways slicing up FICTION, that great plump pie we all adore:
1. Books You Date Vs. Books You Hook Up With. In the former category we could place all those with long-term-relationship potential. In the latter, all those we’d go to bed with but would prefer not to take out in public afterwards, let alone exhibit to our friends. This is a simple matter of honesty. Sometimes there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that you’ve had a meeting of minds.
2. Books With Sly Pop-Culture References Vs. Books Without. A microgram of peanut oil in a soup stock can cause an allergic throat to swell shut, and a single mention of Dr Who or fruit roll-ups or Absolut Citron can cause some of us to shut a book. Yet why should others be denied these joys, or even have to search for them? In our store of the future, we could label the shelves “Wink-Wink” and “No Wink.” Readers in both camps will thank us.
3. Books by Earnest Awkward Writers About Earnest Awkward Writers Vs. All Others. The only problem with this scheme is that one of the categories might prove rather small.
4. Books In Which No One Does Anything Which Is Not Dull Vs. Books with Elements of Excitement. The bulk of recent western mainstream fiction falls neatly in the former slot; in the latter, we might find One Hundred Years of Solitude and Barbarian Chicks & Demons rubbing shoulders, but García Márquez, at least, can be counted on not to complain.
5. Books Written at Drug-Accelerated, Industry-Preferred Speeds Vs. Books Written by Inexcusably Slow Authors Who Care About Craft. These two categories are emerging whether we like it or not, so why not embrace the inevitable? They roughly correspond to two other groupings: Books by Authors Who Might Help the Industry Limp Along At Least Until Everything is Stolen All the Time Because Everybody Else is Doing It So it Must Be OK and Anyway Shut Up (ahem) Vs. Books by the Already Rich.
6. Books with Souls Vs. Books Without. This, in all seriousness, is my classification system of choice. There are books that attempt to say something, for God’s sake–and plenty more that don’t even try. Both categories have their successes and failures, but I’d rather go shopping among the first set of shelves than the second. I want my zombies to care a little. The more popular zombies, the shallow ones, may sell and sell, to the delight of shareholders (another kind of ravenous undead), but that’s none of my concern. I’ll be in the back of the store, sharing quality time with my chosen few.
Honestly, you can forget the other divisions, along with the genre/mainstream camps we started with. This is the only guide to slice by–the one we have already, secretly, raised to the status of a faith. What have we been fighting over so long, after all, if not the job of Eternal Critic, the one who culls the soulless from the saved?
Robert V.S. Redick is the author of The Chathrand Voyage quartet of epic fantasy novels. Book II, The Ruling Sea, has just been released from Del Rey Books. Visit him at rulingsea.com or robertvsredick.blogspot.com.