The Book Smugglers started a very interesting discussion on Twitter today, about what makes something a “classic” of science fiction.
I have many Thoughts on this stuff. In particular, the “You haven’t read HEINLEIN? You’re not a true fan!” attitude bothers me for many, many reasons, starting with my discomfort with defining “true fans,” and running through my own particular opinion that Heinlein, however influential, is certainly not the be-all end-all of the genre, my discomfort with making anything “required reading” in a genre this large and diverse, and my own personal feelings on Heinlein’s writing, which are somewhere between “eh” and “not all he’s cracked up to be.”
I feel similarly about any of the other “classic” writers who were repeatedly recommended to me in one breath in my youth, except with variations on my personal taste for them (I’m an Asimov and Bradbury nut but could never get into Dune or Snow Crash, but all that’s neither here nor there). The point I’m getting around to is, if you’ve been a SF fan as long as I have, you feel like you’ve at least tried all the “classics” (or you’re aware of your “blasphemy” in not having read them yet). That even before the days of the Internet, you’d be assured of eventually having a conversation along the lines of, “You’ve never read [Classic Author]??? Where have you BEEN?! Read [Classic Title] right now!” so by the time you were a seasoned SF fan you at least felt like you knew all the Important Names.
All this is a backdrop to what I really want to talk about here, which is possibly a very small piece of all this, but also possibly representative, and the only part of my relevant thoughts that feels remotely coherent. Namely: my reaction the first time I read Octavia Butler.
It was relatively recently. After college. Long after I had foolishly presumed I knew of every Big Name in the genre. I started to diversify my reading because Reasons, and the first name on every single list of SF authors of color was Octavia Butler. The first recommendation on everyone’s lips, if we conditioned first for diversity.
So I picked up Bloodchild.
And I remember being shocked. Mind-numbingly shocked. Because I didn’t get this — I didn’t get how I could have been a fan for so long, had had the luminaries of the genre recommended to me time and time again in a myriad of different contexts, and no one had ever told me to read Butler. The only places I’d seen her were on lists regarding diversity and authors of color, the lists I’d only just sought out.
I’d never seen her name unfurled in the litanies of classics in the same breath as Asimov or Bradbury. And I couldn’t understand why. Octavia Butler is not a great SF writer of color, or a great female SF writer. She’s a great SF writer.
And in her case there is no question that this could be only my own subjective her-work-touched-me opinion. If you look her up, she’s widely acknowledged in every biographical piece as a master of SFF. Award winning. Massively respected. And if we’re measuring influence and groundbreaking in the field as metrics of what makes a classic, it’s hard for me to fathom the idea that Octavia Butler wouldn’t fit that definition.
If I name her as a classic SF author, I never expect anyone to argue with me.
And yet, nearly every time I see someone else recommend her, it’s segregated. Qualified. A recommendation given if you want writers of color.
I don’t understand how we can have a genre where “You haven’t read HEINLEIN (/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Dick/etc.)??” are common and accepted refrains, and “You haven’t read BUTLER??” is almost unheard. Why aren’t we saying it? Why isn’t Octavia Butler considered “required reading” of the classics in order to consider oneself a True SF Fan? Why don’t people feel left out and incomplete if they haven’t read her?
I don’t really know what defines a classic, or who should get to say what one is. But I do know I find myself feeling deeply uncomfortable with any popular mentality that shames people for not reading influential white men while giving a pass to those who skip the influential black women.
Edited to add: Ana of The Book Smugglers turned her thoughts into a thought-provoking essay here. I highly recommend both that and the Storify for a broader articulation of the issues surrounding this point.
- Sarcasm intended here; as noted I think there’s something problematic about these attitudes in general, though my thoughts on them are not quite articulate enough to form a post from.↵