When writing up Wednesday morning’s announcement of the National Book Award finalists, I casually noted that “Station Eleven” — Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic story about a flu epidemic — is “one of the very few sci-fi novels that have ever been finalists for the NBA.”
A few minutes later, Mandel tweeted:
@RonCharles I actually don’t think of Station Eleven as sci-fi, but am fully prepared to concede that I may be alone in this…
— Emily St. J. Mandel (@EmilyMandel) October 15, 2014
And a couple of readers agreed, such as this literary agent:
— Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) October 15, 2014
Last month, we ran a very positive review of “Station Eleven” in our Science Fiction & Fantasy column, but these tweets got me thinking about the problems with such Procrustean categories.
Mandel told me via e-mail, “It’s a question that’s plagued me through four books.” Her goal has always been to write literary fiction “with the strongest possible narrative drive.” She said her ideal of the perfect novel is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”
Mandel never thought she was writing anything but literary fiction until the publication of her first novel, “Last Night in Montreal” in 2009. “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction with a crime in it, it turns out you’ve written a crime novel,” she said. In France, her books are marketed as thrillers.
“I stayed in the literary-with-crime-fiction-overtones vein for the two books that followed,” she said, “and then with ‘Station Eleven,’ I set out to write something completely different, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a crime writer.”
But the categorizers were one step ahead of her again: “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction that’s set partly in the future, you’re apparently a sci-fi writer.”
She has nothing but respect for crime writers and science fiction writers, but there are practical concerns for her. “My only objection to these categories is that when you have a book like mine that doesn’t fit neatly into any category, there’s a real risk that readers who only read ‘literary fiction’ won’t pick it up because they think they couldn’t possibly like sci-fi, while sci-fi readers will pick up the book based on the sci-fi categorization, and then be disappointed because the book isn’t sci-fi enough,” she said.
Cultural differences also play into how “Station Eleven” is categorized. Mandel said, “A comparison of the jacket copy between the North American and UK editions suggests that my North American publishers are playing down the book’s post-apocalyptic elements, while the UK has those elements front and center.” As she reads reviews of her novel, she sees it categorized as literary fiction, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction and sci-fi.
In the end, she’d like to stay where she started. “I prefer literary fiction. The apocalypse in ‘Station Eleven’ is obviously an important part of the story, but I think of it as being more of a story about what remains after we lose everything and the importance of art in our lives than a story about a flu pandemic,” she said.
Whatever its category, Mandel is riding high with “Station Eleven.” The National Book Awards will be presented in New York on Nov. 19.