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Kurt Vonnegut

Noting, with many others, the death of Kurt Vonnegut at the age of 84.

Also noting, with mild irritation, the following sentence from The New York Times obit:

Mr. Vonnegut shed the label of science-fiction writer with "Slaughterhouse-Five."

Did he really? And why did the The New York Times feel the need to assure us that one of the 20th century's greatest science fiction writers was not actually a science fiction writer, no matter what he might have been writing about?

It's an ongoing contempt for genre fiction that still irks me. Yes, most genre fiction sucks, no question. But, on a related note, most mainstream fiction sucks as well, and a lot of "literary" fiction fiction makes for downright unpleasant or unenjoyable reading. (Think Herman Melville's Moby Dick, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, quite possibly one of the worst novels ever published, whatever its "literary" status, and many, many more.) We, as writers, tend to produce a lot of crap, and we, as readers, tend to consume a lot of crap, and publishers, as publishers, for the most part are more motivated by sales than quality. This is not meant as a critique of publishers, just an acknowledgement of reality. Fortunately, since quality can help sell books, some quality things do sneak in here and there.

But the science/speculative fiction, fantasy and mystery genres have also produced some extraordinary work, among the best stuff out there. (Alas, this does not work quite the same in the romance genre: romance books that find themselves rising above the general level of your typical romance -- Georgette Heyer, Diana Galbadon, a few others that I can't think of before the caffeine hits in, but writers focusing on fairly literary or high quality fiction -- usually eventually end up getting shelved in general fiction in most stores. Heyer is an exception in the U.S., but that's a separate entry.) And last I checked, two record bestselling novelists -- Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling -- had earned fortunes and fame through genre writing. And I have to say that both of them are significantly better writers than that mainstream bestseller guy responsible for The DaVinci Code. Even Shakespeare dabbled in fantasy from time to time, what with all of those fairies and witches and whatever Ariel is supposed to be. Latin American literary communities embrace their fantasy authors.

So why does this put down of the science fiction "label" persist in the pages of one of our major newspapers?

(The Associated Press, in its obit, dodges the issue entirely, calling Vonnegut a "satirical novelist," which is true enough, as it goes, and calls some of his earlier works "haphazardly written," also possibly true enough, at it goes.)


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Mari Ness

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