Genre fiction: Is it time to challenge our literary snobbery?

Horror, science fiction and fantasy. Currently there’s a plethora of it on the small and big screen, such as Game of Thrones, Westworld and Arrival. Yet there remains an entrenched literary snobbery when such subject matter is between the covers despite Andrew Michael Hurley’s gothic novel, The Loney, winning the Costa Prize and Kelly Link’s fantastic short story collection, Get in Trouble, being a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

There’s a lot of misconceptions around what genre writing is. Horror isn’t synonymous with gore any more than all fantasy features swords or SF space ships. Not to denigrate any of those. If they’re not for you though then there’s a whole spectrum of fine writing under those banners including dark fiction, slipstream, weird fiction and dystopias. There’s an idea that genre fiction is plot driven, escapist and badly written. That’s like saying literary fiction is where nothing happens, but it happens beautifully.

Granta magazine published a horror themed edition a few years ago which included Will Self, Paul Auster and Don DeLillo alongside Stephen King. It was superb, containing The Infamous Bengal Ming by Rajesh Parameswaran, from his tender and brutal collection I am an Executioner: Love Stories. I do wonder if Granta felt that other established horror writers couldn’t contribute fiction and non-fiction that wasn’t clever and subtle enough for their readership.

We have writers like Alison Littlewood, Mark Morris, Sarah Pinsborough, Adam Nevill, Nina Allan and Aliette de Boddard on the genre shelves in Waterstones. However, there’s plenty of horror and science fiction to be found on the literary and YA section e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Michael Faber.

As to British/Asian artists, we have Georgina Kamsika and Dev Agarwal. Dev is a writer who also edits Focus magazine, the British Science Fiction Association’s magazine on the craft of writing. There’s also V.H. Leslie, who is English/Burmese. Her short story collection, Skein and Bone, was a finalist for the British Fantasy, Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Award. Bodies of Water, her first novel, is making waves.

I’d encourage anyone wanting to write within these genres to look at the small press. There’s a lot of fine work to be found there that’s beautiful, challenging and, yes, sometimes shocking. The Loney was originally published by Tartarus Press (small, British independent publisher) as a 300 copy run before being picked up by Hodder & Stoughton. In the UK we’re fortunate enough to have TTA Press which publishes Interzone (Britain’s longest running SF and fantasy magazine), Black Static (horror) and Crimewave. The first Interzone contained work by giants Angela Carter and M. John Harrison. They’re beautifully produced, containing new fiction, non-fiction columns and reviews. Seek it out if you want to see what current writing in those areas looks like and find emerging writers like Ray Cluley, Carole Johnstone, Cate Garder, Thana Niveau, Simon Bestwick, Steve J Dines, Georgina Bruce, Lynda Rucker, Stephen Bacon and Laura Mauro, just to name a few.

There’s greater recognition of diversity in the field which is exciting – Aliette de Boddard, Usman T Malik, Ken Lui, Alyssa Wong, and Tannarive Due, all of whom are award winners. Mithila Review, an online speculative arts and culture magazine ( edited by Salik Shah, Ajapa Sharma and Isha Karki ) have devoted Issues 5 and 6 to Asian SF. Nightmare (horror), Lightspeed (SF) and Fantasy magazines, have launched special editions under the banner “People of Colo(u)r Destroy…” that “exist to relieve a brokenness in the genre that’s been enabled time and time again by favoring certain voices and portrayals of particular characters. We’re bringing together a mix of all-POC editorial and creative voices from around the globe to present science fiction that is colored by the nuances of culture, race, and history.” I’ve been lucky enough to have work reprinted in both these venues.

I’ve found the horror writing community both online and in person to be friendly and mutually supportive. I recommend anyone interested to attend British Fantasy Society’s annual conference. It’s a great place to meet other writers, attend workshops, readings, book launches, and learn about what’s going on.

I had a dream that recently came real. I walked into to a bookshop in Bath called Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. The name suggests an imaginative owner. True to form there were no divisions within the adult fiction section, encouraging you to look at the Neil Gaiman novels that shared a shelf with Elizabeth Gaskell’s. Yes, it was delightful.

Priya Sharma writes horror, science fiction and fantasy. Her stories have been published in Black Static, Interzone, Tor.com and original anthologies. She’s been reprinted in many Best of  anthologies. “Fabulous Beasts” was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and won a British Fantasy Award.