Monday, November 2, 2009


Apparently November 18 is International Science Fiction Reshelving Day.
Join us this November in a new and unique celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. Many books from our fine genre are regularly placed in the wrong section of bookstores. This not only hides the books from us, but it prevents readers of those books from discovering the rich tradition to which they belong.

On November 18th that changes. We will go to bookstores around the world and move science fiction and fantasy books from wherever they might be to their proper place in the “Science Fiction” section. We hope that this quiet act of protest will raise awareness of this problem and inspire new readers to explore our thought-provoking genre.

It's on November 18th because that's Margaret Atwood's birthday, as she's the author to claim most infamously that her work isn't SF even though much of it obviously is (most notably The Handmaid's Tale). The probable reason is that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into what many perceive as a literary ghetto.

I suppose I can try to muster up some small amount of sympathy for her, by assuming she wants people to see her in particular literary tradition rather than another. If you write General Fiction you get shelved here and attract one group of people, if you write Science Fiction you get shelved there and attract a different group of people, and so on.

For instance, one recent book I read was Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, which is marketed as and universally accepted to be General Fiction. The novel's POV character dies suddenly at the beginning (not a spoiler) and for the rest of the book she's a ghost, able to narrate the events of the story but not able to influence them directly, except that a few times she plants thoughts into key character's minds during dreams which then have a real influence on how events develop. If a short story with the same ratio of the fantastical to the realistic were to appear on, say, PodCastle, I don't think there would be much "Not enough fantasy!" grumbling in the discussion forums. But it would seem somewhat weird to see Saving Fish from Drowning shelved in the "Fantasy" section of the bookshop, rather than "General Fiction".

Why is that? I think it's because we don't see Amy Tan as following in the literary traditions of the books that generally do get shelved in the "Fantasy" section. Tan is seen as a General Fiction author. Atwood wants to be seen as a General Fiction author as well, and she's prepared to say cynical and dismissive things about SF in order to stay there. That's because we all know you can't be both General Fiction and SF/Fantasy, unless your name happens to be Iain M. Banks, and for all we know he's got super powers or something.

This is usually symbolized by the subdivisions within brick-and-mortar bookshops, where each book can be given one and only one classification (General Fiction, SF/Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, etc). You can avoid this to a degree with online booksellers, where each book can be given a variety of tags, but aren't actual physical bookstores that you can go and hang out in more fun?

But when each book can only be marketed as one thing, some arbitrary decisions have to be made. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief usually gets marketed and sold as Young Adult fiction, but if it were shelved under General Fiction instead, I bet it would cause not even a single grown-up reader to end up shaking their head in dismay thinking "This is a kid's book!"

I'm surprised there's not more controversy coming from the fact that many bookstores have separate sections with names like "African-American Fiction", "Gay/Lesbian Fiction," and so on. Can you draw a line separating "General Fiction that happens to be about gay people" from "Gay/Lesbian Fiction"? How do you quantify that?

And I'm wondering if this will be an unsolvable problem for as long as we have brick-and-mortar bookshops where books are physically lined up on neat shelves. Unless people are willing to tolerate having one great big "Fiction" section where the authors are sorted only in alphabetical order.

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