Yet another genre smackdown?

>> Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The other day a brief comment at io9 brought this to my attention: Jeffrey M. Anderson at Cinematical asks, "Genre Wars: Has Sci-Fi Surpassed Horror? and of course answers his own question in the affirmative.

It's the kind of idle thing that might not be worth too much attention, except Anderson starts so badly it's hard to resist:

My local library has a section for science fiction books but no section for horror titles. If you want horror masters like Stephen King or Richard Matheson, you have to look through the normal "fiction" section. This could mean one of two things. The first is that horror is now good enough to warrant inclusion with the regular section. But the second, and most likely, is that horror is not good enough for its own section. It occurred to me that maybe this thinking applied to movies as well.


I like SF. I like horror. I like SF in my horror and horror in my SF, which is why there's an Alien poster illustrating this blog entry and I'm a huge avowed fan of H.P. Lovecraft despite his being an inveterate racist, to the point that I have a Miskatonic University license plate frame on my car and would have to confess the fictional New England university-of-the-weird is my spiritual alma mater as much as Appalachian State University was the actual college I graduated from. So I don't really want to have to get into a pissing contest about which genre might have some smidgeon of alleged superiority. But what Anderson is saying is just wrong. (Yes, I know: somebody is wrong on the Internet. You know what? You're reading a blog. If you're one of the regulars, you probably write a blog. So shut up, that's why.)

Here's the thing: for better-or-worse, thrillers and horror novels have a more mainstream market penetration than pretty much anything in the SF market. Stephen King and Dean Koontz are in "Fiction" because the perception is that they're mainstream books for any ordinary housewife or traveling businessman, and Cherie Priest or whomever you'd like to pick on (and I'm not meaning to pick on Ms. Priest, whose works I haven't gotten around to; she's simply one of the bestselling SF authors of 2009 according to Amazon) is in the ghetto sandwiched between the manga and whatever gaming materials are still in print, alongside the Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40k, Halo and other franchise SF novels because that's where books for mouthbreathing nerds go, which I say as a member of that proud fraternity. (And this is perhaps if Ms. Priest is lucky: she might well be sandwiched, for better-or-worse, awkwardly alongside the Fantasy volumes.) Horror novels, in other words, aren't being stacked alongside mainstream fiction because horror has been so sidelined it no longer shows up as a genre, but because certain horror writers have gone completely mainstream.

Which is something else, that word "certain." Contrary to what Anderson thinks from his local library's odd practices, plenty of bookstores in the meatworld and the digital space have horror sections. And much as one can find plenty of dubious SF novels in the SF/Fantasy section, i.e. novels written about video games and onetime TV shows, there are certainly schlocky horror novels that have zero chance of appearing on the straight "Fiction" shelves. For that matter, on a related note, there are plenty of "Fiction" volumes that are really, really, deep down and underneath the mainstream dress (psst--don't tell anybody!) science-fiction novels. Bradbury, Vonnegut, and Pynchon are all as likely to be found with the straight, serious writers as they are to be found amidst the geeks and nerds.

Here we perhaps run into a simple truth: that the shelves of bookstores (and, for that matter, public libraries) are less-likely to be organized meaningfully according to genre and more likely to be organized around somebody's idea of what moves product, be it book sales at the store or circulation at the library. If Tolkien sells (or circulates) better with the mainstream fiction, that's where he's going to go, and not next to some pulpy volume with a Technicolor-blob-shooting wizard on the cover. And 1984 and Brave New World are going to go in the "Classics" section because that's how they're considered even if they're SF by any meaningful categorization, and Ratner's Star is going to go next to White Noise because why are you going to go and break up the DeLillos just because one of those is a dabbling in Pynchonesque SF (for that matter, you can expect to see VALIS on the SF shelf with an SF label because even if VALIS really isn't anything even close to being an actual SF novel, very nearly everything else Philip K. Dick wrote is and that's where people are going to look for him).

As for the bulk of Anderson's post--does his faulty premise about books carry over into movies?--well... whatever. No, seriously: it's hard to know how one should consider his cherry-picking. Horror films continue to do good box office, and SF films frequently do okay, too, though I don't think they're as reliable box office as horror flicks are. And Anderson's comment that "the most popular horror films tend to give horror a bad name," while true, doesn't give much thought to how embarrassing so many SF films are. (His statement that "like comedies and erotic films, [horror] will always be an embarrassment, something one enjoys inwardly but does not celebrate outwardly" is possibly insane.) Possibly the best SF film of 2009, Duncan Jones' Moon, did nearly zero box office because Sony essentially refused to distribute it. Avatar obviously had good box office--indeed, it can be considered an aberration along the lines of Titanic, Star Wars or Jaws; The Twilight Saga: New Moon, a movie I understand to ostensibly be about some kind of shiny variety of virginal vampire, was also one of the top films of 2009, unlike Moon or District 9. The only other more-or-less SF films on that list, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and 2012 are movies I haven't seen, either, but from reviews and statements of friends I have the distinct impression they're the kind of films that give SF a bad name and are an embarrassment to those serious about the genre. As for the present moment, according to IMDB, the top movie of the weekend was a superhero movie that might be called an SF film if you'd really, really like, though it's certainly not 2001; there's nothing else that might be considered an SF film, but no doubt that the remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street, at number six, is a horror film--actually, the dominant genre at the moment, with Robin Hood, How To Train Your Dragon and Clash Of The Titans would be fantasy, so I guess SF and horror must be on their ways out, we hardly knew ye and all that.

For something so iffy and all as Anderson's faulty premises and worse conclusions are, I suppose you may be wondering why I've even bothered. Well, honestly, I needed something to write about and it was basically this or an entry on the curious term "libtard," and you're likely to see that before the week is over anyway. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts about this or Anderson's original entry. I like talking books and movies, and I love talking about genre stuff. So, if you have something, take a whack at it. And if not... well, I'll try to come up with something else that'll interest you sometime this week. Cheers.

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