Labels in fiction…

I was reading one of my favorite blogs, The Passive Voice, when I happened across an article by Ursula K. LeGuin (yes, the famous SF author of such classics as The Dispossessed) titled “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

It discusses an author who wrote a book about post-Arthurian England, where everyone has lost their memories because of a sleeping dragon whose breath causes forgetfulness.  I haven’t read the book, but it sort of sounds like “fantasy” to me.  The author is not happy with that label, however.  Ms. LeGuin says that it appears the author takes the label as an insult, and Ms. LeGuin says that she finds his attitude about the label as an insult, as well.

My blog article isn’t about the mislabeling of books, or eschewing certain labels because they represent a literary ghetto or whatever.  I’m thinking more about labels themselves.  Are they a good thing?  Why do so many authors seem to despise any attempt to categorize their stories?  To fit them onto some overly broad (or overly narrow) shelf where there are other books that might be “like” them?

I can’t say I understand it completely.  I realize that everyone feels that their story is something unique.  Something personal.  Something that has meaning beyond the story.  Something that educates or informs beyond the devices used to convey that meaning.  And I admit that sometimes (not always) I have a bit of an agenda in writing a certain story; I’m trying to explore something I see in society in some manner through the characters in my story.  I may be trying to make a bit of a statement about how I see something in the world through the way my story unfolds.  Sometimes I do that.  But I never do it at the expense of the story I’m telling, at least in my view.

Mostly I just want to tell a good story.  Whether a reader is going to enjoy it, I don’t know.  I hope they do.  Some people have enjoyed my stories (at least they said they did) in the past.  But I have to admit that my main goal is to tell a story that keeps my readers (assuming I have any) interested until I finish.  Sort of like sitting around a campfire, except with more (and more interesting) words.

So as a writer, I don’t mind being labeled.  I like my stories; I find them interesting enough to think that others might enjoy them as well.  But I’m not thinking that they’re some sort of high art; that in a hundred years they’ll be placed on pedestals in the Book Museum or whatever.  So go right ahead and label them.  If I could label them myself, I would.  I actually do label them, in fact, by fitting them into categories on Amazon.  Am I labeling them correctly?  I don’t know.  I’m not real good at giving my own work a label.

As a reader, I appreciate labels.  I like recommendations, and labels, to me, seem to be the heart of recommendations.  “If you like ‘x’, you will probably like ‘y’.”    That statement, to me, is labeling two stories as appealing to the same group of readers, readers who like z’ types of stories.  So I like it when someone tells me that something is post-apocalyptic or dystopian science fiction, because I have a certain expectation for those labels.  If someone says something is fantasy, I might steer away from it, because I am not a big fantasy reader (Eddings, Tolkein and Donaldson excepted).  But if someone says something is ‘urban fantasy’, I might check it out because I associate that label with Jim Butcher, Laura Resnick and Tim Pratt (among others).  If something is labeled ‘serial killer horror,’ I might give it a look because I’ve enjoyed stories by Thomas Harris and by William Malmborg and Jeffrey Deaver (three very different examples of authors with stories about serial killers).

As a writer, I’d love it if my readers could label my fiction.  So far, all of it is short.  But as I’ve said, I have a couple more things ready to go.  If I can finish up my editing work and get some covers done, I have two or three that could be released before the summer.  Would you like to label them?  I’d call all three horror thrillers, and two of them have very human criminals who create the horror.  The third is a bit more supernatural.

In any case, I don’t think labels say anything about a work beyond offering a sort of classification system which is useful to readers, especially power readers who plow through and love certain types of stories.  They don’t say anything about the depth of the story, the quality of the storytelling or the technical skill of the author, but they do provide a handle for readers looking for new authors to discover.  As discovery tools how can they hurt?  Labels may be the only thing that writers today have in their bag to help them get discovered, since most of us (99.9% or more) do not have access to those front tables at a bookstore.


2 thoughts on “Labels in fiction…

  1. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    I wrote a blog post about labels from the political POV, so I found your article an interesting perspective on labels in fiction. I might have mentioned some of the following in a writing post too.
    So here’s another case of interest possibly: Margaret Atwood has been adamant that her writing isn’t sci-fi but speculative fiction. I consider speculative fiction a more general category, with sci-fi and its offshoots (space opera, hard sci-fi, cyberpunk, etc), fantasy, horror (zombies, vampires, etc), paranormal (ghosts, ESP, etc) as sub-categories (I’m using label and category interchangeably).
    Labels in fiction are blurry. The more sci-fi is current science and technology extrapolated into the future, the closer it becomes to fantasy. Clarke’s statement about super-advanced civilizations’ technologies seeming like magic can be paraphrased: very futuristic hard sci-fi can seem like fantasy.
    There are other labels outside the sci-fi v. fantasy realm that could be debated. Is Garcia Marqyuez’ 100 Years of Solitude magical realism, or is it just fantasy?
    As you point out, the labels don’t matter much if you enjoy reading the book. I feel they’re just guidelines at best. They help me avoid things like Fifty Shades, but they didn’t help me avoid Gone Girl.

  2. Scott Dyson Post author

    Yet, I still feel I can tell the difference between “fantasy” and “science fiction.” Certain tropes identify (or label) the stories. I’ll agree that there are certain works that sort of cross over — they look like one thing and end up being something very different. Dan Simmons’ ILIUM and OLYMPOS come to mind. Some of Card’s work, including PATHFINDER (and its sequels) seem to start off with the trappings of fantasy but it quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t fantasy at all but everything that appears magical is based in science and physics.

    I agree that these genre labels are guidelines, or handles, that readers can use to narrow their focus when looking for something to read. Not much more, but that’s a useful something to be for a reader who is overwhelmed with titles.

    I think (and maybe we had this discussion in the comments of your blog once before) that “speculative fiction” is a category that is primarily concerned with ideas. As such, there is a lot of mystery and thrillers that don’t qualify as speculative. Most horror is not speculative. OTOH, most SF and fantasy ARE speculative by my view.

    Every story might be an exercise in asking “What if?” but to me, it’s when that question results in some sort of bigger change in the fictional world that it becomes “speculative fiction.” (I like that label — I think stories that fit into it make for interesting reads.)

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