I'm meeting for the first time this eminent doctor whose field crosses into mine:
"Ah, C.! I'm so glad to meet you, I've heard so much about you.
- So glad to meet you too, Dr Y.
- And what are you reading at the moment?
- Oh, scifi as usual."
There is a moment of blind panic in her eyes and she doesn't say a word for a few seconds. I think I've been suddenly hit by a magical power because I can hear all her thoughts: "Did C. say 'scifi'? Is it really C.? But I was told C. had an agrégation in Modern Literature!"
She dismisses what I've just said with a blink and, barely skipping a beat, goes on to explain to me that she is currently reading Anna Karenina and loving it while I am silently howling with laughter...
The fact is that Dr Y is just another example in a very long list, and every scifi reader has his/her/their own list of such encounters.
We are facing this very old stereotype that:
a) scifi isn't literature but just some mass market stories with space ships going vrooooom (even if there's no sound in space) and shooting each other with death rays of doom.
b) People reading such stuff are all overgrown teenagers who probably still live at their mother's, all males, with a beard and eating crisps. (Admittedly, some of us in the fandom are!)
So can you imagine when - shock, horror - you don't fit that stereotype and - shock, horror - you even claim that the genre isn't limited to space ships shooting each other with death rays of doom? Those poor people feel really flabbergasted in front of such a blatant explosion of their stereotypes.
What do psychologists call that? Cognitive dissonance, isn't it?
But what happens then? Do you think Dr Y. went home, finally realised that Anna Karenina was utterly boring and ditched it to start reading Iain M. Banks instead?
No, of course she didn't. What probably happened was that, despite thinking for years that I was doing a good job in my field, I suddenly appeared to Dr Y. as some sort of eccentric. That is if she went for the charitable explanation in her frame of mind!
Nonetheless, I never give up trying to educate my eminent colleagues and fellow readers about the many virtues of scifi and fantasy. I usually fail. The stereotype is that powerful.
Sometimes, I succeed.
This colleague teaching History made a point of never talking books with me because he knew I was reading scifi. But he slipped one day and I explained I was currently reading some African-American female writer and that I enjoyed very much her particular take on some scifi tropes. I had piqued his interest because it was within a frame of reference that he was interested in, the history of oppressed masses. He started giving me a wish list. He wanted to read:
- scifi (because fantasy was obviously a 'soft' genre) ;
- but not hard scifi (and no space ships, thank you) ;
- African-American (or Caribbean) women writers.
Since he doesn't read in English, I had to check which were translated in French. I ended crying in despair to see that only a couple of Octavia Butler's books are translated, only one by Nnedi Okorafor, only one by Nalo Hopkinson and only Jemisin's fantasy trilogy (Tananarive Due, Justina Ireland, Karen Lord, Nisi Shawl... all unknown to the world of French SFF publishers who really don't help breaking the stereotypes).
He read Kindred, loved it and asked for more. I had shaken his view and he finally realised that scifi had something to say.
Serious SFF readers know that their favourite genre is one of the most interesting literary genre there is. Yes, there are mass market novels that are just escapism and mindless action. And it's fun too reading that.
But SFF is also a daring genre in which some authors boldly go where no one has gone before, in which some authors are inspired by Paul Ricoeur's research, by myths and their reinventions, by the Nouveau Roman experimentations into character and plot, by post-colonialism and genre studies, by the world as it is and economics/technological models, by a careful study of human nature that could put Dostoievsky to shame, and who put all of that into stories that require also a tremendous imagination!
Most serious SFF readers go back again and again to their favourite genre despite the opprobrium because we actually know the incomparable quality of what we are reading... Despite some dud here and there. But which genre can boast to contain only masterpieces?
Most of us meet regularly those literary snobs who scorn us, who watch us haughtily, and some of us even have to hear some derogatory comments about their supposedly lack of knowledge of "proper" literature, making us feel small, idiotic, overgrown teenagers who never got past Star Wars... Trek... Whatever!
So every single time that I meet one of those literary snobs, I make a point of proudly stating that SFF is my favourite genre and that, why, yes, I also do have a degree in Literature, fancy that! I always feel that I'm avenging those of us who can't reply to that scorn.
And anyway... Who cares about them? We have more fun reading SFF!
"SciFi & Fantasy vs. Proper Literature" will return with a second part about "Magical Realism and Other Useful Euphemisms to avoid saying the SF word".
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