I was asked recently about what I read and what I write. Oddly enough I found this very difficult. I was in America, and I was talking to a lady who I knew would read R.A. Salvatore or the Belgariad into my response of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy.’ Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the Belgariad (mostly) (we’ll ignore R.A. Salvatore) but this misrepresents me. If I respond with that answer, the assumption that immediately comes into others’ heads is that that is all I read.
The actuality of life is that I read it more than most, yes, but it’s not the be all and end all of my life. Looking back at my reading over 2014, 25 of the 53 books, or just under half of those that I read, were SFF. The rest covered an entire spectrum of reading: LitFic (The Goldfinch; Salvage the Bones; All the Birds, Singing), Historical Fiction (The Silk Tree), ‘Women’s’ Fiction (Anybody Out There?), ungenred YA (The Bunker Diary, We Were Liars, The Fault in our Stars), non-fiction (The Psychopath Test; Do No Harm) etc. etc. etc. Saying I read SFF is no more true than saying I read any of those other genres above. It is simply that I read more SFF than I do other genres.
This is before I even start to consider the vagaries of genre description. Is The Road by Cormac McCarthy Science Fiction, or Literary Fiction, to the average Joe? To describe it as Science Fiction still feels belittling when Mrs. Bloggs above will compare it with Heinlein, but that’s what it is. What about No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe? Marketed and written as a literary thriller, it’s distinctly SFnal in its outlook and its plot. How about the masterful The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough? A novella on the power of grief, as the main character watches her father die a slow, painful death, it also heavily features a – possibly metaphorical – black unicorn. Does this make it Fantasy? Or does it remain a short LitFic book?
With this confusion in mind, and with the knowledge that less than half of what I read is Science Fiction or Fantasy – and half of that again are books like those above, genre-fluid, or using SFFnal themes to advance something that isn’t ‘core’ SFF, I’ve come to a new descriptor.
Science Fiction and Fantasy is my home genre.
It’s where I’m most comfortable. It’s the community in which I immerse myself. It’s the place where I know the people, I know the books, I know what’s hot and what’s not, what people are talking about and what the latest controversy is.
It’s not all I read.
In much the same way that, three or four years ago, I would have said that heavy metal is my home genre for music I worry for myself when it comes to SFF. I don’t follow heavy metal in the same way now. I have blurred – I listen to indie, to electronica, to old school east coast hip hop, to original soundtracks, to indie rock – I have no home anymore. I am an omnivorous wanderer through the musical plains, stopping to take in whatever takes my fancy. I have lost touch with that community, such that it is. I still listen to Heavy Metal. I still get the latest albums from the bands I love. But I listen to so much more, so many different things, that I can’t truly say it is my ‘home’ genre anymore.
Likewise, I’m slowly moving outwards from ‘core’ SFF. I’m exploring far more literary fictions, and far more SFF with a literary bent. In 2011, 42 of the 56 books I read were SFF. In 2012, almost all of the extra-curricular reading I did was SFF. But slowly it has declined. Slowly, SFF has become less vital and more homely.
Perversely, this has made me enjoy SFF far more. I rarely read ‘core’ genre any more, and when I do it is both escapism and falling back into the arms of an old friend. It is enjoyment beyond the usual: I tend to pick up ‘core’ genre far more on recommendations and reviews than previously based on reputation. For this reason I enjoyed The Traitor’s Blade and The Copper Promise – debut ‘core’ fantasies – or Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples’ Saga – ‘core’ SF, albeit in graphic novel form – in a way more so than I did Brandon Sanderson or Hannu Rajaniemi in 2011 when I picked them up on reputation. Or I’ll follow an author: Tom Pollock, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch – more ‘core’ fantasy works. As I said above, the majority of the SFF I read is on the border, is mixed-genre. Adam Roberts, Sarah Pinborough, Ben Aaronovitch, Clare North, Jeff Vandermeer – all people I first read this year, all on the borderline of multiple genres. Lavie Tidhar, Frances Hardinge, China Mieville, James Smythe – all people I’ll consistently read, and will continue with every book they produce, all (to a certain degree) borderline cases.
As my SFF focus decreases, I become more discerning before I turn that first page. I rely more on reviews, on hype (from the right people), on what others have said, to direct my reading experience in that genre. It is this new way of choosing books that is also increasing my consumption of books ‘outside’ SFF. If someone or some place that I trust recommends say All the Birds, Singing (in this case, the New York Times and Jeff Vandermeer) I’m far more likely to read it. If Jared Shurin or Adam Roberts or Mahvesh Murad or Niall Harrison post a glowing review of something, I’m far more likely to read it. If Twitter is aflame with the latest literary sensation (I’m looking at you, The Miniaturist), I’m far more like to read it. If it’s published by Hodder, by Picador, by HarperCollins’ Blue Door I’m far more likely to read it.
As my immersion in books and publishing continues, I thinks SFF will remain my ‘home’. But I also think that the percentage it occupies against the rest of my reading will decline.
And this is not a bad thing.