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September, 2005 : Feature:

Approaching Genre

There's a constant discussion among ourselves as writers and readers of genre fiction, usually along the lines of "what is genre," or "genre is dead," or "they don't write stories like they used to, by gum! You kids have all sold out to the style monkey horde." We are, and perhaps always have been, a schizophrenic lot when it comes to our self-definition.

One of the more measured approaches to this question is the concept of reading protocols, first introduced by Samuel R. Delany in the 1970s. (1) It seems almost self-evident now, but he posits that "the conventions of poetry or drama or mundane fiction—or science fiction—are in themselves separate languages." (n.p.). Using Delany's theory of protocols as a point of departure, James Gunn explains that "good reading is a matter of learning the protocols and applying them with understanding and sensitivity to a particular genre: poetry, for instance, is not read with the same protocols as prose, or an essay, as an article, or a short story, as a novel, or any of these, as drama" (n.p.). These protocols are the established conventions of the genre, in effect, formalized into a literary theory.

The particulars of Delany's thesis continue to invite reanalysis and generate further response, most recently by Alan de Niro in "The Dream of a Unified Field." (2) The notion that readers can learn the underlying themes and structures of a genre (any genre, not just speculative fiction) is compelling for the simple reason that it serves well as a descriptive model of reader experience. Readers view the text through the lens of established protocol and participate in both some version of the author's intent and in the ongoing discourse of the genre.

There are an almost unlimited number of approaches to defining genre which seek to classify it according to theme or subject matter or various other schemes of assorted degrees of rigidity, but we would like to propose a different approach, one driven by the idea of the reader's expectation and experience. This strategy has the advantage of avoiding exclusivity while touching on readers' knowledge of specific protocols and tropes; more fundamentally, it also addresses their willingness and ability to interpret the fundamental internal reality of the text. In his (in)famous book Is There a Text in this Class?, Stanley Fish posits that readers are constrained by understood practices and assumptions and goes on more radically to claim:

Skilled reading is usually thought to be a matter of discerning what is there, is a matter of knowing how to produce what can thereafter be said to be there. Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them. (327)

While we would not go so far as Fish to claim that the reader is ultimately responsible for the work he or she reads, it is certainly true that readers always bring a certain set of beliefs and assumptions to the text, and if they have not learned the protocols of a genre before confronting it, they will not know what to do with it—up to and including the point that it may not make sense to them. Fish was speaking of the conventions of Literature with a capital L (primarily poetry), but we would propose that readers untrained in the conventions of speculative fiction can be just as unable to make sense of the narrative as those outside of the "interpretive community" of college English courses when confronted with James Joyce—perhaps more so, because there are fewer Barron's Notes to consult.

Consider John Updike writing the sentence, "Rabbit is rich." A reader of naturalistic fiction doesn't need to dip into any particular well of experience or set of protocols to know that Rabbit is a person (whether or not they've already encountered Harry Angstrom in their literary travels) of means. The wealth referred to with the term "rich" may be literal or metaphorical, the statement may be ironic or descriptive, but it is simple enough in its own terms. Updike is perfectly aware of this as he develops his text, and can work within the reader's expectations of naturalistic fiction to tell his story.

In speculative fiction, however, the process is very different. What Gardner Dozois calls "the furniture of genre" (3) comes into play—much like the concept of the reading protocol, in fact. "Rabbit" could be a personal name, a physical description, a species, or even a reference to a starship, a corporation, or an entire culture. "Rich" could refer to accumulated wealth, the degree of fatty ingredients in the accompanying sauce, or the state of the fuel-air mixture.

The naturalistic fiction writer needs to expose the details of the reality within the story, in whatever manner suits his or her style and purposes. The speculative fiction writer needs to expose the assumptions behind the reality within the story, being aware of the reader's expectations, and working with (or against) them accordingly.

This need to frame the fundamental reality of the story, working through and around reader expectations, is an essential difference between speculative and naturalistic fiction.

This definition leads to some obvious potential discontinuities. On the surface, it may seen that it ought to be possible to employ SFnal tropes in a naturalistic discourse. But an established SFnal trope (or reading protocol) may well carry with it the reality framing required to divorce the story from naturalism. For example, faster-than-light travel is, whether or not explained by a generous application of rubber science, inherently a reality-framing device. It plays directly to well-established reader expectations, which would require a writer of consummate skill to overcome and redirect in the course of a story. By the same token, writing naturalistic fiction with attention to framing the fundamental reality can lead to aberrations such as magic realism or slipstream—story texts that may be apparently at home in the ordinary world of the naturalistic, but disturb the reader's expectations—introducing "sense of wonder" to an audience that would utterly reject the approaching darkness of "Nightfall." The critical role played by reader expectation is self-evident: much of the speculative fiction written for the mainstream market seems simplistic and/or overly obvious to readers and writers within the field.

It is not only reader expectation and experience that creates a story, but authorial intent. Literary theory from New Criticism to Deconstructionism has rejected the validity of authorial intent, but it can hardly be denied that on some level there is an author who acts as point of origin to establish the reading experience. However, once the work has been released into the world, its meaning belongs to the reader more than the writer. Thus Margaret Atwood can deny that she is writing speculative fiction in The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake (presumably to avoid the image of legions of Can-lit fans suddenly taken to wearing Spock ears) but the reader understands it as speculative fiction because of the non-naturalistic reality Atwood must frame in order to make the story intelligible, in this case, as speculative fiction.

The contrast between her denials and the practical experience of the text can be seen as another one of those discontinuities—certainly from a marketing perspective where nominal labeling of grouped sets of reading protocols produces a shelving category for your shopping convenience, and perhaps also from a critical perspective—but that contrast can also be seen as a logical outgrowth of this approach to genre.

In short, when the author establishes a world where the milieu, the backstory or the enabling processes of action step outside the common frame of reference in which naturalistic fiction operates—that is to say, everyday life plus or minus the fictionalization of characters and events—they are creating speculative fiction.

What use is this approach to genre? For one, the vast majority of speculative fiction is unquestionably identifiable as such regardless of whether it is viewed through this lens. To grossly oversimplify, if there are elves or self-aware computers or walking dead present in the text, the story can be considered speculative fiction regardless of how the reader approaches the story. Those elements, those pieces of Dozois' furniture, are a universal shorthand for genre.

Borderline cases are particularly interesting when examining the role of the reader in creating genre, for example, Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See." (4) Fowler uses explicit pointers to a classic SF story, Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" (5), as a form of shorthand to claim a place in the ranks of speculative fiction, yet the piece can be easily read as naturalistic fiction. Fowler plays with the edges of expectation regarding race and species to slip in the non-naturalistic elements, in a manner subtle enough that, without the referential title, it would elude many readers.

Viewing speculative fiction as an approach to framing the reader's experience of reality allows inclusion of a number of stories, authors and even proto-movements that are intermittently rejected on various technical grounds of theme, structure, and suitability by people pursuing a traditionalist agenda. This concept presents a potential apparatus for both critique and criticism.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, if the great purpose of speculative fiction is to impart a "sense of wonder," we argue that the sense of wonder comes from that moment when the meaning of the text shifts into a new focus. That is a function of the reader's experience of the reality-framing embedded in the text. Such framing can be overt, as in the magnificent descriptions in Niven's classic Ringworld, or it can be chillingly subtle, as in Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See." The hook by which such a text comes into focus is set by this concept of the framing of what lies behind the reality.

Use of the lens of reader expectation and experience, and the writer's corresponding framing of reality, allows us to approach genre with a working definition of the sense of wonder so key to our core traditions, while including the various schools of style and craft which have emerged since, from New Wave to New Weird. It is that elusive commonality that sparks so much disagreement. Perhaps our self-definition as a field can arise from something as simple as our self-definition as readers.


  1. See "Teaching Science Fiction: Unique Challenges," eventually printed in Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984. See also an excellent discussion by Gunn, "The Protocols of Science Fiction." [back]
  2. [back]
  3. In conversation, 2004. [back]
  4. and also the subsequent firestorm of the debate on the Tangent Online comment board (no longer available.) [back]
  5. [back]

Works Referenced

Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984.

De Niro, Alan. "The Dream of the Unified Field" Fantastic Metropolis, Feb. 15, 2003.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Fowler, Karen Joy. "What I Didn't See." Scifiction, July 10, 2002.

Gunn, James. "The Protocols of Science Fiction." Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Tiptree, James, Jr. "The Women Men Don't See." Reprinted in Scifiction, August 21, 2002.

Copyright © 2005, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Sep 5, 20:31 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Jay and Ruth's latest column.

The article is here.
Sep 7, 03:36 by barry burns
Atwood has never denied she wrote speculative fiction, it is the term science fiction she has trouble with.
Sep 10, 10:19 by Dave Truesdale
"Fowler plays with the edges of expectation regarding race and species to slip in the non-naturalistic elements, in a manner subtle enough that, without the referential title, it would elude many readers."

I have never understood what the "non-naturalistic elements" were to this story. Since the article relies heavily on defining new words in support of a thesis designed (as I see it) to allow the inclusion of stories that are clearly not speculative fiction--in any common sense usage of the term--I think a close look at what these terms really mean might prove useful.

Here's a hypothetical: if "The Old Man and the Sea" was published in F&SF, would the readers' expectations of seeing this story in an SF magazine make this story SF (Speculative Fiction)? I'm just asking, as I'm not clear on some of the points the authors are trying to make.


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