Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.


Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

blooming orange rose

Homecoming (Short Story)

For the first piece of my fiction writing on this blog, I wanted to choose something that was complete, not long, and gave a good sense of my voice. This one is maybe 1.5 out of 3? It’s complete except for the ending, which needs another line or two, and probably more fiddly edits. It is certainly short. It is rare for me to write in second person and the language in this is a big departure from my usual. Still, I like it a lot for no particular reason; so even though it’s a bit scary to share it, read on.

redwoods branchHomecoming

It is very early in the morning when she takes you away. Sheltered cups of fog in ground-hollows shine fat as oyster bellies. Your mother’s strong arms, smelling of sex and hazelnuts, carry you to your home of the next seven years – the witch-home, the green-home, the home of starving winters and firefly summers, the deep woods far from man.

Seven years of sun brown your round arms. Seven years of pine needles and riverbed shale harden your small feet. Seven years of witch-living, and you learn their morning and midnight prayers, their way of taking birds in the palm, their way of singing to sleeping bears, their way of stealing corn at night from the farmer’s fields that border your forest.

Among the trees one day is a girl smaller than yourself, smelling different than you, fat where you are thin, pale where you are rosy and brown. Even her words are strange to you but you know the word that she holds out to you like a talisman: home, home, home. It is not so hard for you to find it. She will not go the last steps alone and so you take her damp hand and lead her to the door. You dance away from the paws that reach for her and next for you, until you see the gentleness with which they touch her. He gives you frothy sweet milk in a bone cup. All that night you sleep on the ground as you always do. Never before has it felt cold or hard.

At first they tell you you have no father, that witches have only mothers. Then they tell you if you go you can never come back. Then they tell you that when you come back it will never be the same. The mice will not nibble from your hand again. You will not know the names of the red and white stars.

In the end you go alone. To witches, even little girl-witches, long distances are not so long and paths not easily lost. He lives far past the border of the corn. You find him alone in a house whose wood is peeling like burned skin. At table there is no foaming milk but hard bread and silence. Your father stares at you as though to cure his wounded eyes.

Instead of watching spiders weave moonlight silk, you watch your own hands make patterns with coarse wool. Your teeth discover the ache of sugar. You learn to sleep within walls. Sometimes your father crushes you to him so that you can feel the drumbeat of his heart against your own, keeping the same time. His love is the wonder the witches could not teach you.

In five years it is your twelfth birth-day. Twelve are the moons of the year, and it is on her twelfth birth-day that a witch girl is tested by her sisters. The ebb tide of your child life is over. The witches do not come when the mellow sun is burning. At twilight, rich with violets and washes of blue, not yet tinted by but a stage for a gibbous moon ripe on the edge of the world, is when they come.

At first they are a distant rumble. Cracks bloom through dry earth as if it were easy to shatter as spring ice. In your father’s house everything has fallen or broken or shifted.

They are coming like a storm cloud bound with great chains to the earth. The witches, more than you had thought there were in the world, are pounding with their bare feet a clear path through the fields of man.

Long nights brought you dreams of your mother the witch, of her sisters and yours. In the dreams you helped butterflies open their wings; you stood on the shore of a vast dark ocean; you were in the old forest, or on a mountain, washing your hands of hot deer-blood in a cold stream. You were not afraid then as you are afraid now. Your fear is digging iron fingers into your belly. You stand your ground until you can see their bright eyes and the wicked teeth glinting.

The only direction for running is away. You have not forgotten how to run so swiftly the wind sings at your heels. There are fields and more fields, fields stretching away past where you have ever been and beyond that too.

They come closer as the moon crests in the sky. The fields are ending and now before you is a hedge of bramble, a towering cage of thorn. The witches are so close their breath is a second wind warm on your neck. You cannot run forever.

The hedge seems endless. The thorns glint steely in the moonlight. It is unthinkable that the grasping hands should take you so you close your eyes and leap. Great pain. Stillness.

When you open your eyes you see through a filigree of fine points and slender curling branches. You are high up in the thorns; how did you come so high? Your arms, your shoulders, your face, your throat, your tender thighs are sticky with blood. You are weightless among the thorns.

One by one the witches call to you. Their faces shine like a thousand moons over the crashing sea of their welcome.


© Margaret Collins

Who, exactly, wants to read my novel?

The reason I ask is because some days, I’m not sure I want to read my novel. Mostly the days on which I am editing it. Since I am currently engaged in a painful top-down restructuring of 200,000-ish words, that’s most days. That’ll teach me to never write without an outline again (I hope).

Here are a few criteria I have identified for readers of my eventual book:

  • Must enjoy speculative fiction or fantasy
  • Must like character-driven books
  • Preferably not care if characters kind of wander around for a while Doing Stuff for Some Reason
  • Enjoy detailed descriptions of Nature In All Its Glory
  • Be my mom

Do you fit these criteria? If so, comment here to be a beta reader!

Today I have been writing down the plot points for the Book That Will Be; I already wrote down the plot points, insofar as I could, for the Book That Is. I’ve done a lot of noodling with the desired plot plots but writing them down in an orderly fashion has had me spooked. I guess it’s because it feels like I’m committing to them now, and commitment is not my strong suit. Choosing one path means you can’t go down the others. But that’s what got me into this mess: trying to leave as many options for myself and my characters as open as possible led to a meandering, decisionless wasteland.

Do any of you who are writers, reading this, relate? Do you find it difficult to make choices for your characters?

Pop quiz! Is R2D2 here channeling me when I have:

  1. Been working on my plot map for 3 minutes
  2. Just re-read my extant draft after it’s been a while
  3. Decided to rewrite 40% of my book AGAIN

The correct answer is, of course, all of the above.