The tyranny of genre

I was speaking, via email, to a literary colleague the other day, and the subject of speculative fiction came up in regards to a publishing company that was looking for speculative fiction to publish on its website. “Send us your fictional speculations,” said publishing company declared. Said colleague quickly and easily explained what speculative fiction is, but I informed him I was well aware. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for fantasy and sci fi, but with room for alternative history, horror, and a variety of other literary weaklings.

I hope this post has a provocative enough title, by the way.

I have a problem with the term “speculative fiction.” I find it damaging and demeaning because the underlying message–even when it’s employed with the best of all possible intentions–is that some genres are so un-seriously considered that you’re doing them a service by changing their name. You can’t have a serious horror film or fantasy novel when those genres are dominated, in the public subconscious, by hockey-puck faced slashers and dragons, dungeons and bare-breasted barbarians (respectively). Enter speculative fiction, a critical sink plug to save things from going down the drain: horror that you can’t call “psychological thriller” but you still like, or fantasy that you can’t call “magical realism” but you still like…

Perhaps no genre has been battered around quite like science fiction. Critically acclaimed works of sci fi have been labeled as something else to avoid the sci fi ghetto. “2001: A Space Odyssey” isn’t really sci fi–it’s post-modern philosophy. George Orwell’s “1984” isn’t really sci fi–it’s political satire. Sometimes even another class of speculative fiction is safer. Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” isn’t really sci fi–it’s fantasy. In fact, even ole Ray himself was guilty of this line of thinking, calling his works fantasy or fairy tales for adults rather than sci fi. (I should note that I put Bradbury in a class of his own, and if I hadn’t heard the man say those words with my own ears, I wouldn’t even mention it.)

It’s not that I have some problem with getting an umbrella term on science fiction and fantasy; I just wonder what’s wrong with the term “science fiction and fantasy.” I’m thoroughly against hiding genres behind a term like “speculative fiction” on a matter of principle. Sci fi and fantasy shouldn’t have to hide behind any terms. They’re not Nazis on the run in post-War Europe. The most glaring problem I have is somewhat semantic. Tell me, what fiction isn’t speculative? In fact, doesn’t all fiction require some level of speculation? In fact in fact, if you’re basing something on fact instead speculation, isn’t that called non-fiction?

If you must have an umbrella term for sci fi, fantasy, horror and thriller, I propose “mystery-science.” First off, it doesn’t dump the old terminology like it’s music you listened to when you were 13. I think it also captures the ungainly width of the umbrella: anything that Edgar Allan Poe could have conceivably written–and the man did write things that can be called sci fi and fantasy, as well as the garden variety horror and thriller–could be covered by as loose a term as mystery-science. But more importantly, it’s shamelessly stolen from one of my favorite (dare I say formative) TV shows, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which showed cheesy sci fi, fantasy, horror and thriller movies, and thoroughly mocked them with puppets. And ultimately, that’s the point.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” was perfectly willing to admit that the genres it showcased were capable of producing some prime crap–it based its whole premise on that. But “MST3K” wasn’t afraid of that crap. Crap can be fun. And it’s only by acknowledging crap that you can move on to the probing, literate sides of a genre. Changing a name can’t do that. Changing a name is a playground dodging tactic. If critics started calling Alfred Hitchcock “Fred Fillerman,” it wouldn’t help them forget “Jamaica Inn” any more than it would help them appreciate “Vertigo.”

Ringing out the in year

What better way to start the new year off–late–than by looking at the old one? Hey, they did it at the Golden Globes.

Naturally, there was a lot of buzz around and after the proceedings. I was particularly interested by one story that came out of this year’s Golden Globes. Not Michael Keaton’s award for his performance in “Birdman”–although Alejandro Inarritu’s New York vs. Hollywood vs. Youtube meditation on meaning was probably my favorite film of last year, thanks in no small part to Keaton’s savagely honest performance.

So if I’m not talking about Michael Keaton, then I must be talking about traditional TV vs. streaming, an argument that’s long been in industry journalism (just plug “death of cable” into your favorite search engine), but has gained new talking points in Amazon.com’s wins for “Transparent”–the first time a streaming program has beat out its tradition competition for best television series. I have been interested in the evolution of distribution for a while now, but I am much more in line with Linda Holmes’ sober analysis of the situation on NPR.

Besides, we all know what signals the death of traditional TV: Woody Allen is going to Amazon.com to make a show. Haw. In truth, I’m pretty happy about that because, while Woody has made fine films and funny films, he’s never made a truly cinematic film. Movies are, first and foremost, a visual medium, and Allen doesn’t have that all important cinematic eye. If you need a refresher on that, just go back and watch last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” Great performances, a witty script (more in line with his philosophically probing early fiction), but with none of the visual magic the French countryside deserves. Aside from a few bisecting shots and some pans to create depth, “Magic” could have just as easily been a play (and wasn’t one of the arguments against the fine little film that it was stagey?).

As such, I think Woody will be much more comfortable on smaller screens, where viewers can focus more fully on actors and dialogue. I am definitely looking forward to the (as yet untitled) show for just that reason–and not at all because my mom has an Amazon Prime account I can leach off of.