Speculating

I’m about to become an author of speculative fiction. The Receptionist and Other Tales has just been accepted for publication by Aqueduct, a feminist science fiction press in Seattle. I’m both thrilled and nervous.

Thrilled: I love the mission of this small press. I’m joining a list that includes many wonderful writers—Ursula Le Guin, for example, of whom I am a swooning fan. And I have been reading fantasy and science fiction ever since I could lift The Lord of the Rings. I read everything else, too; as a ten-year-old I made little distinction between Jane Eyre and Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and they have a fair amount in common, really, even though they’re shelved in different parts of the library. Few things compare to falling in love with a new author and plunging into his or her weird world, knowing that there are hundreds of pages ahead of you, craving and dreading the plot’s resolution—as an adult I’ve felt that joy about Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Michael Chabon, and many others who work in that area between literary and genre fiction sometimes called “slipstream.” Several years back my friend Suzanne introduced me to the Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones (another Aqueduct author), sticking each book into my office mailbox as she finished it. She teased me later about the time she bumped into me outside Payne Hall and said, “Oh, I just left the next one for you.” My back straightened, my eyes grew wide and wild, and I dashed ravenously back into the building.

The Receptionist is a tale in terza rima of a young administrative assistant in the English department of a small southern college. She reads fantasy novels aloud to her two sons each night, so as campus crisis deepens around her, she sees an abusive administrator as the Dark Lord, university counsel as his leathery-winged avian minions, a powerful but sleepy senior professor as The Dragon, a group of feisty women colleagues as Quest Companions. Writing it helped me survive my stint as Department Head. I mapped it out one Christmas break (thanks to Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a hilarious book that crystallizes all those tropes), and each time I drafted a 30-line canto, I’d leave a thread for the next occasion I could carve out two hours for writing. I’d pick up that rhyme or plot point and jump back in to a world where rather than an administrative job title, I had real power.

And maybe you see now why I’m nervous? This isn’t a roman à clef but people from the campuses I’ve worked at will recognize little elements of character and situation I’ve added to the blender, and some might be offended. That’s one danger, but maybe the more familiar one.

The other risk has to do with genre. I’ve been making progress as a Serious Poet. Plenty of Serious Novelists and Critics look down their noses at genre fiction; they might admit to the guilty pleasure of mystery-reading but fantasy and science fiction are just too stinky. Serious Poets have even longer, more sensitive schnozzes. I am sure that this is a good book—I sat on it for a long time, revising and weighing and making sure my delight in writing it wasn’t impairing my judgment about the product—so if/when people murmur about this questionable career move, I’ll know they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean it won’t bug me.

I’m not the only contemporary poet doing this. In the long run, of course I’m not—I wouldn’t compare my book to Spenser, Milton, or Dante, but surely they’ve proven that poetry can be great speculative literature. Just as twenty-first-century high-brow novels, though, play around with popular genres to terrific effect, some critically successful poets are splashing around in the slipstream, and perhaps for similar reasons. More on this soon.

6 thoughts on “Speculating

  1. Well…your book sounds like one I would buy and possibly give as a gift to a speculative fiction loving professor I know.

    When a person dismisses a good book because of it’s genre, they are indulging in a kind of intellectual maturbation, not to mention being dishonest with themselves. “1984” and “Brave New World” are easily “speculative fiction”.

    Best of luck to you. I hope your fears are…unrealized. Please let us know when your book hits the presses!

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  2. Congratulations on the acceptance of your collection!

    Speaking as someone who writes both literary and speculative (science fiction, fantasy and horror, though in my case it’s mainly sf) fiction and poetry, I find, at least in New Zealand, that there is much less “looking down the nose” at speculative fiction by authors of literary fiction than there used to be – and I’m sure the success of Elizabeth Knox has a lot to do with this. As for poetry, a volume of New Zealand science fiction poetry that I co-edited sold well and was listed in a couple of mainstream publications’ best-of-2010 book lists.

    So that prejudice seems largely to have disappeared here – I hope that you will find the same!

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  3. Congrats! And I think the days of having others look down on speculative writing are over – at least, I hope so and someone who slips in between mainstream and speculative poetry and flash fiction.
    As far as anxieties – I always say we’re lucky if our work colleagues actually read our books closely enough to react at all.

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  4. Hating science fiction/fantasy is a series of knee-jerk reactions and intellectual snobbery. The reactions go something like this. 1. There are dragons in this book. 2. Last time I heard the word “dragon” was in high school, when my lab partner went on and on about Dungeons and Dragons.
    3. He wasn’t cool. 4. I don’t like books with dragons in them. 5. I’m cool now, right?

    I’ll bet nine out of ten of those poets and critics liked Madeleine L’Engle’s books when they were children. And the tenth poet comes by her hatred of science fiction honestly.

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