Believe it or not, this is a question I’ve struggled with a bit. Well, maybe not struggled–that implies that I’ve got some kind of major stake in labeling my output, when generally I’m just happy to have output at all. But if you identify yourself as a writer in any sense, at some point someone is going to ask you what you write. And they might just be humoring you at a party so that you’ll fill the awkward silence for long enough for them to make an escape without seeming like a jerk, but you should still ideally have some kind of answer lined up. Generally, when it comes up, I say “science fiction and fantasy”, since for the most part that’s at least technically true, and almost everyone is probably going to know what I mean when I say it. But at least as far as I’m concerned–and usually I’m the only person who cares–things aren’t quite that simple.
I got into this original-fiction-writing-and-selling-of business through sf/f, yes. But the sf/f was of an erotic flavor (my first couple of publications were through Circlet Press). I went this route because, honestly, it seemed easiest. Good erotica is naturally not going to be all sex scenes all the time, but you can still safely operate under the assumption that when you sit down to write some erotica, there is going to be sex somewhere in there, and in a very prominent position (heh). In my experience, this gives one a thematic center around which to build a story, and a conceptual focal point at which to anchor it. For someone making their first hesitant foray into original writing, this kind of structure can be a comfortable place to start, especially if, like myself, you have something of a background writing porny fanfiction of various flavors.
Due to how erotica is marketed these days, it tends to get lumped in with erotic romance, which means that if you look for my stuff, you’ll often find it in places like All Romance Ebooks. Subsequent work like Hieros and In the Pale Moonlight has landed me even more solidly in the romance camp–and indeed I’d classify both of those works as romance. Nevertheless, I don’t consider myself a “romance writer” for several reasons:
-I don’t read romance. At all, pretty much ever. I have nothing against it as a genre, and I really don’t like the subtle–and not so subtle–misogynistic bent of a lot of the people who do. But books that focus primarily on romantic relationships just don’t appeal to me all that much, so I don’t tend to pick them up when I have time to read for pleasure. I do like romantic aspects in my reading, but there has to be a lot more there to grab and keep my attention. In addition, I don’t generally prefer the Happily-Ever-After ending, which seems to be a requirement for a lot of romance readers at the moment. This has been an additional sticking point, because:
-Little of my erotic writing features what can properly be called a HEA. It’s there, it’s just not a significant percentage of the work. I’ve actually had more than one reader take issue with something I’ve written because it didn’t feature the ending they were expecting and wanting.1 I also don’t have anything against the HEA–again, I’ve done it–I just often don’t find it as interesting as other more complicated and uncomfortable possibilities. I also think that what counts as “happy” can vary wildly from character to character, and one character’s happy ending might well not work for anyone else–and that’s also interesting. Finally:
-While a lot of my fiction deals with relationships, those relationships are often not romantic in nature, and this is especially true of my erotica. A lot of the people having sex in my books don’t, strictly speaking, love each other. A lot of this is because sex interests me as a storytelling device for the revelation of aspects of a character that may or may not have anything to do with love. Which is a lot like real life. And I think the most important part of being a writer–or at least being a good one–is being truthful. Even when one spends most of one’s time in the weaving of fantastic untruths. So for me, sex and love frequently have little or nothing to do with one another.
So while I’ve written romance and will probably write more, I don’t think of myself as a romance writer, and I wouldn’t try to pass myself off as one.
Lately I’ve been devoting a lot more time and energy to the writing of non-erotic pieces (nothing against it, again; it’s just not entirely where my head is currently at). The common thread running through nearly all of my work–erotic and not–is speculative in nature, which is why I’ll peg myself as a sf/f writer when I have to peg myself as anything. Most of what I read these days is sf/f, anyway, and I tend to read more sf than f. But a lot of what I’ve written recently can barely be called science fiction–while there’s a heavy speculative element to it, there’s little real science, or any of the tropes that we identify with sf.
So is it fantasy? Eh. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, either. While fantasy is certainly a lot broader than the stereotypical sword-and-sorcery that the word probably calls up in a lot of people’s minds, I feel like it’s a stretch to call pieces like “Dead Man Watching”, and “The Ghost Roads”, and “Memento Mori” (the latter two as yet unpublished) fantasy. Other recent pieces, while they might be science fictiony in trappings, are strongly oriented toward horror in feel and flavor. Which is weird–I never thought of myself as a horror writer, but lately I do seem to be trending in that direction.
And I can’t seem to stop writing ghost stories of all stripes.
So at the moment, when I’m in a situation where I can self-identify, I usually say that I write slipstream–or, as I’ve seen it described somewhere that escapes my memory at the moment, “weird and dark”. And of course, this is why “speculative fiction” is such a good catch-all term.
Again: why should I even care? Why should I be even slightly interested in putting a label on what I do? I agree that it’s probably silly to be interested in such things, but isn’t that kind of what people do? We label things; it’s part of how we understand the world, however problematic a cognitive habit it ends up being. So I get to this point, a year and a half into trying to be a Writer with a capital W, and I look back at the body of work I’ve accumulated, and I start wondering what in the hell I can call it. Maybe calling it something helps it to seem more real.2
Regardless, I hope I get to keep doing it. And I hope it stays weird enough and interesting enough to defy all my silly attempts to put a name on it for many years to come.
1 I sometimes wonder how well the lumping of erotica and erotic romance really works in practice since I get the sense that, in my case, it can result in disappointed readers. And I don’t really like disappointing people as a rule.
2 Also, as I’ve said a few times, there are very real marketing implications when it comes to genre and labeling, but that’s another post for another time.