Genre Nomenclatura

Catherynne Valente explains why she doesn’t like the term “speculative fiction”. (Link found via Charles Tan)

I don’t agree with her at all, because I find the term “speculative fiction” very useful. If we’re talking about works that are very clearly SF or fantasy or horror, then we don’t need an umbrella term at all. But when we’re dealing with works that don’t neatly fit into any one of the three speculative genre boxes (Into which category do the Pern books fit? Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews? The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee? Every Steampunk novel ever?) or when we want to talk about the three sister genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror together, we need an umbrella term. And speculative fiction is the best one there is at the moment.

Of course, there is also SFF or SFFH (since horror is usually the forgotten one of the three sister genres) and I agree that SFF or SFFH are perfectly useful for blogs, inner fandom communication and the internet. However, we don’t only communicate with fellow fans and SFF or SFFH may be a bit much to take for people who have problems understanding that SF means “science fiction” and not “San Francisco”*.

What is more, when you’re writing in a formal academic context, abbreviations and acronyms like SF are unacceptable. In my MA thesis, I had to do a global search and replace for SF, because I was so used to using SF rather than science fiction that the occasional mistake might have slipped through. Never mind that having to type science fiction over and over again gets really annoying really fast.

In my PhD thesis I am using “speculative fiction” where appropriate, because I am dealing with all three genres and “speculative fiction” still is the best umbrella term we have. “Fantastic fiction” or “Fantastica” would seem to exclude SF (never mind that’s it’s not really all that common a term) and typing out science fiction/fantasy/horror (a.k.a. SFFH) would drive both me and the reader insane very quickly. But speculative fiction is a handy, easily explicable term and it sounds academically acceptable.

As for Catherynne Valente’s claim that non-SFF people tend to assume that “fantasy” means porn, sorry, but I have never had that experience at all or heard of anyone who did. If I use the term “fantasy” or “fantastic literature” with a German non-fan, they will think of Lord of the Rings, the Neverending Story, Inkheart, Momo, Grimm’s Fairy Tales or whatever, but they certainly won’t think porn, because there already is a perfectly acceptable term for porn and that’s porn or – if you want to be a bit more upmarket – erotic literature. I guess it has to do with the American desire to label erotic fiction or porn as something other than it is, because no one here in Germany, not even the elderly professor** who has never heard of Twilight and never read Lord of the Rings, would confuse fantasy with porn.

*Personally, I am always confused when SF ends up standing for “San Francisco”, because I have come to associate the abbreviation with science fiction so much that I expect something called the SF Chronicle to be a science fiction magazine.

**I’m sorry to come up with the clueless elderly professor all the time, but he is actually a composite of several highly respected academics I’ve met and a constant reminder that I have to write my PhD thesis so that the clueless elderly professor will understand what I’m on about.

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