I have written this in response to an interesting post by Juliet Marillier on her blog Writer Unblocked. She is discussing whether genre fiction is 'literature' or not. One comment on her blog argues that 'literature' is a genre as well, and I would agree. But my discussion below, argues that all of this is irrelevant.
As I've written earlier, I begin with JG Ballard's assertion that science fiction is the only literature (yes, I'm calling science fiction literature) which has accurately reflected what has happened in the 20th century. Of course he is talking about a particular kind of science fiction, the kind that Star Trek fans would not recognize. His work was often marketed as science fiction and still is, even though everybody knows that it is JG Ballard, basically, and not "proper" science-fiction. In the end, he has succeeded in defining his own genre, kind of in the way that William Burroughs did, an author also originally marketed by Pan as science fiction.
My novel Hybrids was promoted as science fiction by HarperCollins, but for me it was not. Just because it had people merging with bits of electronic commodities didn't make it science fiction for me, although you might call me naive as a result. It was the themes that counted.
I've gone down this road even more with my latest work, and the touchstone which I am using is Kazuo's Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. There has been much written about whether this is science fiction or literature, and everybody generally agrees that although the subject matter -- cloning and breeding people for operations and spare parts -- is in the ballpark of science fiction, the treatment of it is not. And the reason is -- and this contradicts what Juliet says -- that it does not present a consistent storyworld.
A science fiction writer would normally create a whole self consistent world and describe its features. Kazuo doesn't do this because he is interested in the emotional lives of the characters, not explaining the wider world in which they find themselves. We already know what our 'real world' is like, we don't need to be told. We accept the 'real world' whether it is self consistent or not (and some would argue that is you not)! So you wouldn't stop the narrative of a 'work of literature' to explain how a mobile phone works when a character starts using one. And yet science fiction writers do sometimes stop the narrative to explain something about their story world for readers.
Whatever label you put on a book defines its readership to an extent until the writer is sufficiently well known that people will follow his/her work. S/he will break out of the genre. Terry Pratchett is Terry Pratchett. Interestingly, the Raw Shark Text, by Steven Hall, although arguably fantasy, was marketed as non-genre by Canongate Books, presumably in order to maximise its potential readership.
Then again there is the old chestnut of whether someone like Franz Kafka or George Orwell would be marketed as science fiction nowadays.
It doesn't really matter -- they are unique, and perhaps what we should all be doing as writers is concentrating on finding our unique voice and not worrying about genre.