Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's In A Cover?, part I

November 18th -- that's a couple of days from now -- is International Science Fiction Reshelving day. Or, at least, it it was. ISFRD was canceled for being, well, a pretty bad idea, but here's the idea in a nutshell: A ton of the books that we consider "Literature" are indistinguishable from sci-fi, and that's a problem. Case in point: Nobody would look for The Time Traveler's Wife in the sci-fi section, and "time travel" is in the title, for crying out loud.

There's something respectable and New York Times Book Review-y about The Time Traveler's Wife. It's got an arty picture of a little girl's feet on the cover. John Varley's 1983 time travel novel, Millennium, has some kind of girl in a futuristic catsuit jumping out of some kind of nutty time portal thing with a robot in the background. They're probably on some kind of spaceship, too, by the looks of it. Not exactly a New York Times Notable Book.

The catch is that there's some kind of vaguely insulting value judgment behind what gets shelved where, and how classy its cover looks. Who gets to decide whether or not to present a book as pulpy nerd-fare or Kakutani-bait? Margaret Atwood once famously took exception to classifying her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which is about a dystopian theocratic future-world, as science fiction because sci-fi was about "talking squids in outer space."

The idea behind ISFRD was that on November 18th, activists around the country would go into bookstores and re-shelve books like The Time Traveler's Wife in science fiction. It was, of course, a noble but terrible idea, which is why it got nixed; I have a hard enough time stopping people from mucking up my precious book order without having to worry about ideologues that I half-way agree with.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Atwood later softened on her "no sci-fi" stance. Next week, we'll take a look at a couple really great novels that straddle the line between "genre fiction" and "literary fiction." I promise it won't all be about time travel.

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