Monday, June 16, 2014

Changing Times... and the Importance (or Not) of Definitions

Today was the first day of a week-long science fiction class, "More Than the Zombie Apocalypse," that I'm teaching at the Loft as part of their Youth Summer Writing Program.

For the past... oh, I don't know, decade or so of my teaching career, I have started all my science fiction/fantasy classes by going through a kind let's play the definition game of SF.  Science fiction is actually fairly difficult to define when you think about it.  Orson Scott Card has a lovely run-down of the various ways in which science fiction can be defined in the beginning of his book on writing including, "Because it says so on the spine."  Normally, this is a discussion that is fairly important because it helps writers start to think about their work (often for the first time) in terms of how they might describe it to a potential editor or agent.

As I flailed my way through class today (like I do), I derailed myself (for the second or third time) mid-lecture by wondering if any of it mattered any more.

The students in my class are 15 - 17 years old.  As we were talking, it occurred to me that they don't really give much of toss whether or not a book says "science fiction" or "fantasy" on the spine, because most of the books they read DON'T HAVE SPINES.  I had to describe to them what it was like in the Late Cretaceous when I was young, and we had to browse bookstores--when it was really rather critical that books of the same sort all be piled together because there was no automatic algorithm that told you "if you like this book, you might also like these."  You simply had to trust that the next book on the shelf was sort of similar, but more what you were looking for.

And, while I'm not much of a publishing industry doomsayer, I do have to wonder how important it will be to these future novelists and short story writers to be able describe what they're writing to agents and editors looking to represent print books with spines and fairly narrow and ridged genre definitions.

Already these are the readers who have "Young Adult" as a genre, which, by default includes ALL THE THINGS--be they fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, mystery, historical, etc.  Perhaps a publishing future is coming where genre, as a definable thing with EDGES won't matter much.  I suspect that there will always be readers who are drawn to one type of thing over another, but how they'll find new books is a mystery to me.

And maybe genre won't be part of it.

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