Sci-Fi Fantasy: Ghetto Category?

Inspired by another thread here at the SDMB, I recent read Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King’s) The Running Man. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the story is set in a dystopian future and the Network keeps the masses distracted by offering them entertainment in the form of cruel game shows. One game show features people with cardio-respiratory problems walking on a treadmill and being forced to answer questions for the chance at a few bucks or a heart attack. The most popular show, “The Running Man,” features two contestants fleeing for their lives from a nationwide manhunt. Anyone who survives 30 days receives 1 billion new dollars.

The Running Man is a science fiction story. So is King’s The Tommyknockers and his more recent book, Under the Dome. Yet, you won’t find these titles in the science fiction/fantasy section of your local Barnes and Nobles. How come? Why are some titles put in the literature section of the book store while others languish in the science fiction/fantasy section?

People don’t go looking for Stephen King books in the SF section, they go to the Horror/Suspense section since that’s where he first staked out territory as an author.

Also, in the books you mentioned, the SF aspect isn’t really a crucial part of the story; it’s actually incidental to what happens in the book.

I think it has more to do with people’s expectations and marketing than with the actual content, tho.

I don’t understand what you mean by this. In all three books I brought up, the SF aspects are crucial to telling the story. Without them, there would be no story.

Gregory Maguire’s books are pretty purely fantasy, with the exception of Ugly Stepsister, but I never see him in the ghetto. Books by an author like Margaret Atwood who only occasionally writes in fantasy I can understand not being separated out, but GM’s first books were nothing but fantasy. Likewise Jasper Fforde.

Some filtering process is happening but it defies logic. Maybe it is based solely on the cover art?

I disagree.

The Running Man really has nothing to do with the SF setting. It could have been 1930s Cleveland for all that the setting matters to the story. What matters is that a guy is being chased by killers for sport. In fact, when this first came out, I recognized it immediately as a ripoff of The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell.

Under The Dome is like a Twilight Zone story stretched to a preposterous length, but the SF aspect matters not at all. How the dome was constructed, what it’s made of, how it was placed there don’t really matter at all. They could have been shipwrecked on an island, there could have been a storm and when they woke up everyone else was gone, etc. What matters is that the people are isolated, and the story is about how they deal with each other in that isolation.

Was Tommyknockers the one with the airplane? Don’t remember enough about it to comment; sorry.

I wish they would put everything into “fiction”, and organize it by author. Otherwise, when I go for a specific book, I have to anticipate what this particular store considers this author/title to be and since there is a lot of grey area, I can’t always be expected to read their minds.

Of course, the worst offender here is Michael Crichton - a third-rate science fiction writer who became enormously successful by marketing himself as something other than a third-rate science fiction writer.

Kurt Vonnegut made a career out of writing science fiction stories and marketing them as social satire.

Back in the day the Sub Base New London library was set up that way. Made life so much easier, I will definitely admit. I also discovered some authors in genres I normally would ignore because I never browsed outside my favorite sections in book stores.

I seem to remember a used book store in Norfolk VA that lumped all the fiction together alphabetically, I never shopped in that store though - it was mrAru’s favorite. It shared a building with a dry cleaner and the mechanicals generated what must be a specific-to-me brown tone I don’t care, I could have just taken the most massive crap of my life, walk in there and 5 minutes later I would be headed for the bathroom … :smack:

Because they don’t have spaceships or dragons on the cover.

Or, in the case of Stephen King, because that’s not where people will be looking for them.

And one of his ongoing characters was Kilgore Trout–the immensely talented SF writer. Alas, his works could only be found in the dusty backrooms of used book stores–in That Section. Some, I believe, were published with Naked Lady pictures that had nothing to do with the plot–just another money-making scheme by the villainous publishers.

Is that author’s name suspiciously like Theodre Sturgeon’s? Just another joke from Vonnegut–who knew he was lucky to get put in the more prestigious part of the bookstore…

I just read it. The Running Man had everything to do with the setting. What the Network was doing, the damage to the environment and it even had flying cars. I don’t know how you define science fiction but I’ll just go with Wikipedia for now.

I hate to break it to you, but a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone were among the best science fiction on television.

What, to you, makes story science fiction?

Odesio, did my answer to your actual question in the OP register at all with you?

I ask because I see it echoed by a couple of other posters, and I’m really not interested in arguing with you.

I was so flabbergasted by your statement that the actual answer to the OP didn’t register with me at all. However, upon looking at it again, yes, your answer registers with me.

Ok then; happy to have helped out.

All categories for books are marketing categories. SF and fantasy really isn’t a genre when it comes to bookstore shelving (it is a genre is other ways, but that’s another story) and, in order to market a book, publishers try to put it into the bookstore category where it will sell best. Many booksellers don’t read the books, or even the blurbs, so they just figure out the category from the cover (and it’s not hard to tell – SF has spaceships and planets, fantasy has warriors and wizards, mainstream fiction has nonrepresentational covers, women’s fiction has a cartoony drawing on the cover, etc. Also, the genre is on the spine for most paperbacks).

Thus, is a publisher thinks a book will sell best as mainstream fiction, even though it has SF elements, they put a nonrepresentational cover on it and call it “fiction” on the cover. If they think it will sell best as science fiction, they will put a spaceship/planet on it and put “science fiction” somewhere.

Do you think this puts some good works of fiction in an area where mainstream readers will not go?

Yes. And it puts some good works of genre in areas where genre readers will not go.

Publishers absolutely do not care what the content of the book is. They care about putting the most books in the section where people expect to see them. Those expectations have carefully honed for decades. You can so too tell a book by its cover: you can’t tell quality but you can be guided toward genre.

This has been a major issue in sf since the modern distribution system was set up in the 1960s. You can argue that you buy books by their content, or the quality of their content. What publishers (and booksellers) know is that the vast majority of buyers of genre fiction buy by genre, not title. That’s why romance series are so easily identifiable. It’s why DAW books in sf were easily picked out by their yellow spines. It’s why Penguin books used to have color-coded covers by genre. And the feedback from such simplistic marking rewards readers because the number of literary writers of f&sf is tiny compared to the number of entertainment writers of f&sf.

Mainstream writers also like the system because the label of science fiction works as a slur to the audience for mainstream works. Kurt Vonnegut started out as a genre sf writer. Then he realized, as he put it, that editors use the drawer of manuscripts of sf as an urinal, and loudly declared he wasn’t writing science fiction. His sales not only increased but the number of reviews increased, the places where he got reviewed increased, the number of bookstores carrying his books increased, and the number of speaking and lecturing opportunities increased. Everybody else noticed and imitated him. Today virtually no mainstream writer who writes a book that is sf will allow it to be referred to as sf, and certainly not be marketed as sf or shelved in the sf section. This is true everywhere. Movies and tv shows that are obviously sf are called by almost any euphemism in order not to have the dread sf label slapped on. Nerds have become respectable, but sf hasn’t.

Yes, f&sf is a ghetto. It has been called that since the 1960s. Many writers have screamed themselves hoarse on the issue. Nothing changes. Either they become mainstream writers or give up. The conditioning of the public is complete.