Ursula K. Le Guin on genre

”Genre, in fact, is now pretty much a function of the publisher's presentation or the author's reputation.

- Ursula K. Le Guin, writing in the Guardian

A famous science fiction writer herself, Le Guin, when preparing her book review of the novel The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, must have been all too aware of how typecasting a novel can affect its reputation (and presumably sales). She predicts that Thomas’s heavily science-influenced first novel of ideas, just published in the UK by Canongate Books, will “escape” being described as fantasy and/or science fiction (which she most certainly feels it is) by dint of having “no unicorns or spaceships on the cover”.

It sounds ridiculous, but perception of genre really can be manipulated by marketing. And clearly some publishers feel that an F&SF vibe would not be good for business. Le Guin uses the example of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a science fiction novel “almost universally described as ‘not sci fi’ because the author is a literary figure”. But there are others, notably Margaret Atwood, whose science fiction is famously classified as “literary fiction”. And then there is the author Iain Banks, cleverly making the best of both possible worlds by using an initial-less name for “literary” novels like The Crow Road but the moniker “Iain M. Banks” for his equally successful science fiction oeuvre. And along the way, cleverly capturing two almost completely non-overlapping audiences.

And so the power that publishers exert over readers inexorably tightens. Are we really that malleable?

You can read the rest of Le Guin’s book review here.