It’s not so much the word that tends to come back as the response as the sheer sense of surprise that seems to be put across in a single syllable. It’s not annoying; not exactly. It’s something else. It’s… frustrating, I think.
That’s the response I’ve been getting when people ask me what it is that I’ve been writing. When I say that my first novel is tie-in military science fiction, I appear to be crossing about seventeen bajillion invisible literary lines and encroaching on Planet Propriety.
Alright, maybe seventeen bajillion lines is a bit of an exaggeration, but there are definite lines that I appear to be crossing with my foray into the world of literature. If you look at it objectively, I couldn’t have made it harder for myself if I had tried. After my weekend at alt.fiction, I have come to realise quite a few things that I had hitherto only suspected. So here’s some thoughts on some of those lines and why I appear to have crossed them. These are the statements that seem to generate the ‘Oh!’ response.
I’m writing genre fiction.
Genre fiction is really now the blanket term for fantasy/sci-fi/horror/urban fantasy/young adult and any number of other sub-categories that loosely fall into the ‘back of the bookshop’ category. A comment that was repeated over the weekend was that genre is perceived as something of a ghetto, where we all stand defending our territory and not letting anybody else in.
Here’s something I’ve heard many times. ‘Genre fiction isn’t proper literature’. What a load of snobby tosh that is. If anything, the capacity to write in a fantastic world demonstrates a much better connection with the long-lost art of storytelling than these awful ‘I was abused by crabs as a child’ type books that seem to be so popular. Where is the ‘Schadenfreude’ section in the bookshop, hmm?
So yes. I’m writing genre fiction. Does that not make me an author in some way? You know what, get over yourself. What I’m doing is writing stories that I hope people will enjoy reading.
I’m writing for the Black Library.
Actually, this usually gets a ‘who?’ response before the ‘Oh!’. It’s only when I clarify that the Black Library is the publishing arm of Games Workshop that people make the connection. Then they sort of glaze over as they recall that strange little shop with the sweaty teenage boys lurking within and the toy soldiers in the window. You can see it in their face. They’re bewildered by this announcement and don’t know what to say. So they say ‘Oh!’ Sometimes, they say ‘Oh!’ in a bizarrely enthusiastic way as though they can encapsulate everything in that one sound.
This is probably the line that confuses most people; because Black Library is pretty genre-specific after all. Say ‘fantasy’ or ‘sci-fi’ to most non-genre readers and they’ll come back with ‘Oh, you mean Tolkien and Star Trek’.
Uh-huh. Let’s get to the biggy, shall we?
I’m writing military sci-fi featuring seven foot tall, genetically engineered post-human warrior monks who carry chainswords and guns. Big, big guns. Oh – and whilst I’m digging my own grave, it’s tie-in fiction.
Yeah, I think. I know what you’re going to add. And they invariably don’t. Some do, of course. But…
…you’re a girl.
I am! Thanks for noticing the 38C’s there! Oh, wait – that’s ALL you noticed? Are you a PC World reject? (Clarification: I went into PC World once to buy a new printer and the sales assistant addressed everything to chest level. In the end, I actually crouched down to get his attention. I laughed about it, but I wanted to punch him).
Let’s break this down gently.
1) Yes. I’m a girl. Does this mean I am precluded from enjoying military sci-fi? I also happen to enjoy books by Marian Keyes who is as far removed from outer space as you can possibly imagine. My taste in reading is like my taste in music, films and television. Eclectic. I like lots of things. Women who read genre are, in my opinion, likely to be far more intelligent and more widely-read than many of the men – particularly the younger men who have yet to go against the grain and break out of genre for a look at the World Beyond.
So yes. I’m a girl. Reading and writing science fiction of a military nature. Why is this? Because it’s fun. There’s nothing more sinister to it than that. I’m not some sort of rampant feminist trying to make a point. When I first got the writing gig with BL, I worried about writing under my own name. But in the end, I went with the best advice I got.
‘You wrote it, didn’t you? Be proud of it. Not ashamed.’
So I have gone for using my Actual Name. It will be something of an interesting social experiment in some ways and indeed already has been. (Again, for clarification, in a review of one of my short stories, the only thing the reviewer could comment on was that I ‘spent too long describing how handsome the sergeant was’. There was one line in which I mentioned his appearance. That was it. That was all he could find to say on the story. Several people have said to me that they’d never seen such a blatantly sexist review and not to let it bother me. It didn’t bother me, I assure you. In fact, I laughed at it. I am, however, reasonably sure that if I had written using just my initials, or under a male name, he’d have not even mentioned it). Still, that’s his opinion and he’s more than entitled to it. Sirrah, I salute you.
It was just one comment, but I’m sure it’ll happen again. There seems to be a (thankfully small) sub-section of genre readers who instantly despise a girl coming into their precious world. I hope I can at least change their minds a little.
Additionally, if other female authors feel more confident about submitting work to BL because I’m there and not afraid of who I am, then that can only be a good thing. Certainly the dynamic of the game is changing; there are far more girls buying and painting Warhammer armies. I sometimes feel, along with the other BL short story-writing gals out there, something of a trailblazer.
And as for the tie-in fiction stigma…
Even my own dad said, when I told him about The Gildar Rift, ‘but it’s not real fiction, is it?’
There was a pause of aeons. Icebergs formed, got embarrassed and melted.
‘What do you mean, exactly?’ (Inside, I was saying ‘you mean, “well done, Sarah”, of course you do.’)
‘Well… you’re not making anything up. It’s all already there.’
‘I’m creating all my own characters and my own story. The rest of it is just a prop.’
And we were back to square one.
Incidentally, he has since told me how proud he is of me. Heck, I’m proud of me. Tie-in fiction or not, writing a 100k+ word novel is no easy feat. Let the snobs look down from their pedestals and sneer at my work of lesser fiction. I’m the one having fun and enjoying what I’m doing. I’m proud to be a part of the W40K (and WHF now!) worlds.
So, quite frankly… in your face, literary snobs.
You go back to debating the hidden meaning of ‘My Life as a Crustacean’. I will let my imagination run free in a world of either my own, or someone else’s devising, where all the pressures of real life can be left at the door for a few quality hours. Because – and let’s combine all of these things and slap the label on – I might be a female military sci-fi tie-in genre reader and author for the Black Library… but I’m happy doing it. And when someone says to me ‘I loved your story’, then I’ve shared that happiness.
Given the choice of literary recognition or making someone happy… hearing that someone’s joined me in my made-up world, I know which one I would choose any time.