Genre Jargon: How the SFF and Literary Worlds Speak about Themselves and Each Other
First entry in a series on the different genre and literary ecosystems.
I always tell my writing students that today is an exciting time to be an author interested in both genre and literary fiction. That the barrier between the two is dissolving, that readers care little about labels, that even the Pulitzers and National Book Awards have genre works among the finalists, and that authors like Kelly Link or Carmen Maria Machado or Ted Chiang or Jeff VanderMeer can build readerships in both. And all that’s true. But at the same time, the literary and genre worlds remain in some ways very separate.
By worlds I mean the ecosystems of agents, publishers, awards, websites, and such that an author must navigate. Even if readers and writers care less and less about the labels, the worlds can be very different. At times they feel like alien cultures speaking different languages. “Early readers” or “beta readers”? “Small lit mags” or “semiprozine markets”? “Cons” or “festivals”?
I find these differences anthropologically interesting, both for the surface level differences but also the deeper cultural differences between the two worlds. Their different approaches to awards, readers, and so on. What can these two worlds learn from each other? How do their differences in approach to, say, awards change how writers operate?
So, here’s the first entry in a series on these differences. I’m going to start with a fun—and hopefully the least contentious—entry: genre jargon.
Definitions and Caveats
I’m NOT going to try and delineate the (various and conflicting) definitions of “genre” and “literary” here. I do plan to get into that in some future newsletter but for now when I refer to the “literary world” I’m speaking of what you’d expect: MFA programs, magazines like The Paris Review or Ploughshares, imprints like Riverhead or FSG, agents who list “literary fiction” on their websites, etc.
When I say “genre world” I’m focusing mostly on science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction (plus the one hundred billion subgenres of those). Those are the genres I write in and am most familiar with. Obviously, there are other genre ecosystems: crime fiction, romance fiction, etc. Those tend to overlap a fair amount with SFF world, and also tend to function similarly in terms of how professional organizations operate, how awards are structured, and so on. But when I speak of something like “genre jargon” I’m pulling primarily from SFF. I don’t think I need to define SFF, beyond saying that acronym means “science fiction and fantasy.” You know it. Magazines like Lightspeed and Uncanny. Imprints like Orbit, Del Rey, and Tor.
Because genre vs. literary fiction is so often treated like a team sport where you pick a side and scream insults at the other one, I want to state up front that I root for both. Or perhaps play for both, in this metaphor. I’ve published in both “literary” magazines like The Paris Review and Granta as well as “genre” magazines like Lightspeed (forthcoming) and Strange Horizons. My story collection was published by the literary Coffee House Press and my science fiction novel is coming out this year from Orbit. I really love both “teams” here.
I also teach both “literary” and SFF classes at MFA programs. Indeed, it was listening to the different ways those classes spoke that got me thinking about genre jargon.
Without getting into the full history of the genre and literary worlds, they’ve been separate for many decades—separate awards, magazines, conventions, canonical authors, etc.—and so it’s not a surprise that they’ve developed their own terms. If you go to an MFA program workshop one day and a Clarion workshop the next, you’ll often hear the same concepts described but with slightly different terms.
beta readers ––– early readers
prozine ––– big magazine
semiprozine ––– small magazine
viewpoint glitch ––– POV violation
cons ––– fests (although there are some differences)
Those kind of differences are quirky yet maybe don’t tell us much about the two worlds. But other times the jargon doesn’t really have a counterpart and the differences tell us something about the focuses and influences.
Genre World Terms
SFF understandably gets a lot of terms from computer programming like Easter egg (a hidden reference for fans to find), fan fiction like Mary Sue / Gary Stu (a character, often an authorial stand-in, that’s “unrealistically free of weaknesses”), games (such as referencing the alignment chart of Dungeons and Dragons when describing characters), and fandom generally. A fun example of that one is Doylist versus Watsonian, which are two ways to talk about a text derived from Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is Holmes’s sidekick and the in-universe narrator. A Doylist approach is about how the author wrote the work while a Watsonian is derived solely from the text itself. If a character who was killed in book one comes back in book four, a Doylist explanation might be that the author was pressured to bring back a fan favorite while the Watsonian explanation is that he was cloned or the multiverse overlapped or whatever the text says.
Some SFF terms come from the tech and magic focus of the genre: squid on the mantelpiece (when the small scale of the story conflicts with the massive SFF elements), “a wizard did it” (explanation for any logical errors), red shirt (a side character who is introduced just to die, from Star Trek), worldbuilding (how you create a new reality or setting), and so on. To say nothing of terms that are simply specific to SFF tropes: portal fantasy, generation ship, dark lord, space western, etc. There are simply countless of those.
While I think that the idea that genre fiction is always plot-driven and literary fiction is always character-driven is nonsense, it is true that the genre world has a whole lot more terms for plot elements and plot issues. They speak of plot coupons (various things the characters have to collect in a quest narrative), hand waving (lyrical prose trying distract from a plot hole/logic problem), info dump (huge chunks of exposition about the SFF conceits or world), and so on.
In general, the genre world seems to speak a lot more about specific tropes, plots, and subgenres. The content of the narratives. They analyze and catalog them with an almost scientific interest. Any SFF fan could give an impromptu lecture on, say, the difference between portal fantasy and second world fantasy or between steampunk and dieselpunk. The literary world, OTOH, is much more allergic to labels of this kind. Often anything vaguely magical will be called fabulist and anything humorous satirical without further delineation.
Literary World Terms
In my years of taking creative writing classes, I never heard any of the above terms come up with the exception of perhaps info dump. In recent years worldbuilding has become ubiquitous, although it can be, uh, problematic when applied to non-SFF works. Yesterday a friend was telling me how their MFA classes would use the term… but only when talking about workshopping a non-American students’ work. “Really great worldbuilding here, you really made me believe in the world!” “Um. It’s Nigeria. It exists.”
In my MFA time, plot was mostly ignored. Sadly. (I love plenty of plotless works, but as a professor I try to emphasis that plot is an element as useful and artistic as any others). In general I think there is probably less unique literary world jargon because most MFA terms were borrowed by SFF workshops and because the literary world has a real aversion to specific labels and boxes. When I searched for an MFA glossary to link, the (humorous yet accurate) one I found is filled with vague terms like interiority, specificity, and physicality. For better or worse, MFA programs spend a lot more time talking about “finding your voice” or “writing what you know” or “inhabiting character” than they do cataloging different types of plots or tropes. The emphasis is on finding your own specific style rather than navigating the existing landscape of tropes, forms, and genres.
I find both of these approaches useful. It’s nice to pretend, for a few years at an MFA, that the business and marketing side of things doesn’t exist. To just write what comes to you instead of worrying about which specific subgenre it fits into. But it’s also good to, you know, actually know the field you’re working in.
Instead of computer programming or fan fiction, a lot of literary world terms derive from academia via theater and visual art. Chekov’s gun (the idea that a notable element introduced early must be deployed by the end), pathetic fallacy (from painting, but in literature it means applying human emotions to inanimate objects normally to mirror the character’s feelings: “The sky wept the day Billy and Sarah broke up”), or Freytag’s Pyramid (a specifically theater-derived dramatic structure that’s IMHO wrongly applied to novels and short stories). Or else they’re from ancient Greek and Roman sources such as in media res (starting in the middle of action), deus ex machina (a big plot issue solved in an abrupt and unlikely way). Although most of these terms are often used in the SFF world too.
What’s perhaps less likely to be used—in my experience—are some technical craft terms like free indirect speech (a specific move that can be done in close third person POV, popularized by James Wood in the MFA world I think) or point of telling (in a past tense story, this is the time period the narrator is in while narrating the story). These are often very useful terms, but I have to say they’re hardly as linguistically interesting as eyeball kick (an awesome visual image in a line) or funny hat characterization (giving a character a notable quirk).
I should add that in my experience a lot of literary world professors do have fun jargon, but they tend to be more specific to individual teachers than universally used terms.
Literary fiction may not talk about red shirts, but they do have their own clichés like the second page flashback (what it sounds like). While my SFF students spend a lot of time talking about types of plots, various tropes, and other content-specific terms I’d say my literary fiction students spend much more time talking about style. Is the prose minimalist or maximalist? Is there a Southern Gothic feel? A fabulist mode? None of those terms are obscure to SFF authors of course. But there’s a difference in focus.
The Great Pantser vs. Plotter Debate
While in general I think the genre world’s specificity is more useful than MFA vagueness, at times there’s a tendency to force works or writers into boxes they don’t fit in. The focus on worldbuilding has made a lot of readers dismiss or fail to understand SFF work in a different mode believing it to be “failed” worldbuilding. (I wrote about that a bit here.) Another of these examples is pantser or plotter, a bizarrely common genre binary that far too many people insist all writers fit into. A pantser “flies by the seat of their pants” aka writes without planning or outline. A plotter, well, plots and plans. I really dislike these terms. (For one thing, “pantser” is someone in elementary school who yanks down other kids pants.) George R. R. Martin has a more linguistically beautiful version of this: gardener or architect. Do you let your ideas grow organically or do you rigidly plan everything?
But either way, I see a lot of young writers who think they must write one way or the other. They think they must plot or pants. If you are one of those writers, let me tell you very few published writers I know—either SFF or literary—work rigidly one way or the other. We are doing both methods and everything in between. We write loosely sometimes, plot other times, even in the same work. One might free write a rough draft, then rigidly plot your second draft, etc. Or stop mid-chapter to plot the rest. There’s no one or two ways to write. Find whatever combination of different methods works for you.
Pet peeve rant over.
Terms for One Another
It seems appropriate to end this newsletter on genre jargon with a note about how the genre world and literary world speak about each other. To varying degrees of ignorance, snobbery, and malice, both worlds have a tendency to speak dismissively of the other. And the extends to the jargon.
The SFF world has a host of terms for literary fiction that no one in the lit world would ever self-apply. Several of these come from a false view that literary fiction is always realism, and specifically realism about boring topics: mimetic fiction and mundane fiction are two examples. Mundane fiction is contrasted with imaginative fiction, as if only SFF writers had imaginations. As I said above, I don’t have space to debate definitions here but suffice to say the MFA programs, literary magazines, and the “literary fiction” shelf at the bookstore features a lot of modes beyond realism. Postmodernism, surrealism, Southern Gothic, etc. And even the realist stories feature plenty that is not “mundane.”
Another SFF term that I don’t think is used as dismissively but is really not a term the literary world likes is lit fic. Ugh. On the flip side, the literary world often uses the term sci-fi, which is not preferred. In both cases skip the cutesy shortening and say literary fiction or science fiction (or SF/SFF). There’s also speculative fiction, although that’s a minefield I won’t step in here…
On the literary side of things, there’s a very ignorant tendency to conflate genre generally and SFF specifically with formulaic fiction, pulp fiction, and/or commercial fiction. All with the general idea that SFF is hacky, less original work that doesn’t need to be taken as seriously. There is formulaic genre fiction and there is commercial genre fiction. There is also formulaic literary fiction of course. Some commercial literary fiction is out there too, undoubtedly. These are all different (if sometimes overlapping) categories, not synonyms.
Along these lines, it’s really pretty offensive when literary world people try to compliment a work as “transcending its genre.” No. Le Guin or Butler or Chandler or (insert whatever genius you like) are genre writers and transcendent writers. They are highly literary and proudly working in genre traditions.
Luckily, I think the snobbery toward genre fiction within the literary world proper has decreased drastically in the last two decades. It now seems confined to English Literature academia (which doesn’t overlap as much with Creative Writing as you might think) and perhaps some bitter Midwestern high school teachers. But it’s much less common to hear professors in an MFA program or speakers at a literary festival poo-pooing science fiction or fantasy these days. When I tell fellow MFA professors that I teach a speculative fiction class, the response is almost always “That’s awesome! I wish I could take that!” and never “But that is not literary enough! Harumph!”
Bottom line: both the genre world and the literary world have a lot to offer and a lot they could learn from each other. Read widely and speak respectfully.
Future entries: Okay, that ended up being much longer than I was expecting. I find the different jargons interesting, and I hope you do too. However, I’ll cover some larger and more impactful differences between the two worlds in future entries. Next time, I plan to look at how the different awards are run and what impact that has on what kind of work is read and financially rewarded.