Today we welcome guest blogger Barbara Friend Ish. Barbara is Barbara Friend Ish is Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, and Wild-Eyed Visionary for Atlanta-based Mercury Retrograde Press, which publishes fantasy, science fiction, Interstitial and the Weird. Her debut novel, The Shadow of the Sun, was published in February. She is a self-described geek and is wonderful fun to cut up with at the back of the room when the book reading you’re attending drags a little. We’re thrilled that she took the time out to file this guest post.
Life in the SF/F Ghetto
I live in a ghetto. Not the kind of place in which you live because you can’t afford anything better, but rather the kind of place in which you live because other people aren’t sure it’s okay to like you.
Earlier this month, the publishing industry and readers everywhere celebrated World Book Day. BBC coverage of the events served to remind everyone with an interest in SF/F that people just aren’t comfortable with admitting they like the stuff. (Read bestselling author Stephen Hunt’s take on it here; the video itself is available here.) Hunt sums up the attitude of so many readers, as expressed by the BBC host: “Fiction has to be painful, a little like school.”
I must admit I don’t understand why we as people of intelligence and a certain amount of culture beat ourselves so relentlessly over our tastes in reading material. Maintaining that only literary fiction is worthy of our notice is no different from insisting that we must never listen to any music but classical—or, if we do, we must not admit to doing it. Pure silliness, of course. A variety of musical genres have long been accepted as not only significant parts of our culture but art in their own right. And yet our self-loathing over our tastes in reading seems to run right down to the center of the earth.
It’s particularly baffling to me that we cringe over admitting to an admiration for SF/F. Speculative literature has been called “the literature of ideas”: a just moniker, in my estimation. Of course there’s the literary equivalent of popcorn available in SF/F, just as there is in any other section of the bookstore. But SF/F is also the area of literature that offers authors the tools to create sufficient distance between the reader and the issue under examination that the reader may look at the problem with fresh eyes, unhindered by the most unconscious of prejudices. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I don’t respect mainstream fiction; but for deep treatment of serious issues that non-academic readers can truly engage with, I turn to SF/F.
In the hands of a talented author, the themes and tropes of mere entertainment become the tools of moral inquiry. Nowhere is that more valid than in the speculative field. Stories about alien cultures allow us to explore what it means to be human, to examine our attitudes on race, gender, and similar issues. Stories of future or foreign worlds allow writers to address concerns about the role of science in society and contemporary issues like the environment, in ways that allow readers to consider without being preached at. Some of the most penetrating examinations of religion and morality being written today may be found in the Fantasy shelves of your local bookstore. A few examples: Shorn by Mercury Retrograde’s own Larissa N. Niec features a race of winged people who have become an oppressed minority, mired in self-loathing and ritually shorn of their wings. Readers share with me on a regular basis how that tale has changed their attitudes towards their own sexuality or given them fresh perspective on the politics of oppression. Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories allow us to examine our attitudes on oppression and the question of what makes humans human. Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace, returned to print after too long an absence, offers one of the most profound examinations of the experience of being transgendered ever written. My own The Shadow of the Sun, published last month, explores power and corruption. None of these stories would communicate their themes with even a fraction of their current strength without the use of the tools afforded them by the SF/F genre; and none of them is painful, like being in school. They sweep the reader away into experiences she would never have otherwise, and those experiences only heighten the power of the themes.
If you clicked through to Stephen Hunt’s post, you caught a taste of outrage at the disrespect SF/F endures. Many residents of the ghetto feel that way. But for my part, I’m not angry. I feel sad for the Margaret Atwoods and Jeanette Wintersons of the world, who spend their days denying their roots and trying to pass. I’m grateful I don’t awaken in the dead of night, in the grips of self-loathing for my addiction to this literature and of terror that I will be discovered as a geek.
I’m a geek. I’m a speculative fiction writer and publisher. I arise each morning in gratitude for the opportunity to help craft and bring to market some of the most powerful stories being told today. And if I do the occasional appearance in mainstream literary venues, when I go to SF/F conventions to be among my people and discuss the ideas we share with one another in these works, I come happily home.