In a recent interview with Bat Segundo, Kelly Link offers some interesting comments about genre labels. She says that she feels like the term "Literary Fiction" turns off lots of people, and she prefers to call what she writes "Science Fiction:" "People who are turned off by the term 'Science Fiction' probably aren't the people I want reading my work, anyway." Which struck me as strange, since so much of what Link does is exactly what I think of as "Literary Fiction." Then again, a friend of mine once pointed out that Literary Fiction is a redundant term, and one wonders if it really means anything at all. Longtime Science Fiction and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock recently wrote a fascinating review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where, in a blistering litany of names and terms, he puts Pynchon in a linage that includes Brian Aldiss, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. And perhaps Moorcock is right, and my own analysis that science fiction started growing up in the eighties is off by at least 20 years. If Neal Stephenson can call The Baroque Cycle Science Fiction then maybe there is no reason that we can't call Pynchon that too, and indeed his work may share more in common with Moorcock's own then it does with "Literary Fiction" stalwarts from Hemingway to Updike to Joyce Carol Oates.
However, if Link is right that it's the term "Literary Fiction" that turns people off, then someone like Pynchon would sell more as a Science Fiction writer, and I'm not sure that's the case. A lot of the Science Fiction fans I've met seem put off by anything remotely difficult, and I recall J.F. Quackenbush telling me about the time he went to a Science Fiction convention and a group of authors on a panel all agreed that writers shouldn't use big words. This kind of thing, and the Star Trek-type imprimatur I talked about in my earlier article, are what turns people off Science Fiction, and I can't help but feel like Link's own defensiveness about the value of her chosen genre (and, more importantly, I think, of the community she identifies with) results in a kind of reverse snobbery. Yes, Moorcock and Link are right; there are many works labeled Science Fiction that are really great, and besides, there's nothing wrong with a rip roaring good story (I am, in fact, in favor of those). Further, I really like lots of work that's labeled "Science Fiction." Further still, I respect the decision of people like Link, Stephenson and China Mieville who could declare themselves "Literary Fiction" writers and get out of the perceived "ghetto" of Sci Fi and Fantasy but don't on principle. The fact remains that I get very turned off by so much "genre" writing that reads like rapidly produced hack-work, and am reassured that even the least of the "Literary Fiction" crowd spend a good deal of time refining their craft and style in a way that just can't be said by the run-of-the-mill "genre" author, whose writing is often laughably bad. Which leaves me torn, because on the one hand I want to believe that's it's great to say "Yeah, stick it to those uppity snobs, Science Fiction and proud of it," and on the other hand I have trouble accepting the idea that labeling your work Science Fiction is in any way an improvement over labeling it Literary Fiction.
Ultimately though, it's a bad situation all around. I've certainly met people from the Literary crowd with an irrational dislike of Science Fiction, and vice versa with people from the Science Fiction crowd (as well as those of various other genres). There are, in fact, lots and lots of readers who will only voluntarily read one genre, voluntarily pigeon-holing themselves. So the whole thing becomes silly, a situation which I suspect is the product of the way bookstores started shelving things in the last hundred years or so that's taken on an unfortunate life of its own. Thus turning one's nose up at Literary Fiction makes as little sense as turning it up at Science Fiction, and I can't help but wish that Link's attitude towards Literary Fiction was a little more forgiving.