Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

What is LabLit?

I found an interesting commentary in Nature about a new genre of literature, LabLit [text or PDF]. Even though I read widely, I was surprised to learn that I had never heard of this genre, and the titles mentioned in the article were also new to me. The author of the article, Jennifer Rohn, was trained as a molecular biologist and is now the editor for LabLit magazine so she obviously knows what she is talking about.

LabLit is not science fiction. According to the LabLit website, “‘lab lit’ depicts realistic scientists as central characters and portrays fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic – as opposed to speculative or future – world. The action does not have to take place in a laboratory per se, [it can be anyplace] where scientists are doing what they do. Although some science fiction does indeed have elements of ‘lab lit’, and the boundaries can be fuzzy, [but the purpose is to] feature real scientists in the real world.”

According to Rohn, there are several problems that face would-be writers of LabLit: first, most writers do not (understandably) have an insider’s point of view to draw upon and second, would-be writers of LabLit face strong resistance from literary agents and publishers who are convinced that LabLit will never sell enough to be profitable. To address this second bias, Rohn designed a simple experiment with a local bookstore to monitor the public’s response to LabLit. She set up a small upright display with as many LabLit novels as she could find (this was quite a chore in itself because many titles were available only through Amazon) and subsequent sales were monitored.

“I felt lucky to have even a few bona fide specimens,” Rohn said. These “specimens” included titles such as As She Climbed Across the Table Amazon(Jonathan Lethem), Paper (John McCabe) and Brazzaville Beach Amazon (William Boyd). [I’ve never even heard of any of these books, but I’d sure love to read and review them here!]

Ultimately, the LabLit display proved so popular that it remained in place for five months instead of a few weeks, as originally planned, and many of the display books showed dramatic increases in sales.

True, this was only one store, and it was a major academic bookstore, so the interests of its audience were probably biased. But this one small experiment reveals that there is greater public interest in LabLit than recognized by the publishing industry. Further, the obvious and growing popularity of science blogs, such as those listed here, only adds to my own conviction that the interest in science is out there and the literary world is ignoring a potentially large and untapped audience.

“With public distrust of science as prevalent as ever, it certainly wouldn’t hurt science’s image to have more LabLit novels — featuring positively portrayed, realistic scientists — on the best seller list,” Rohn concludes.

Have any of you knowingly read LabLit before? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read LabLit, would you be interested to read it? How about poetry about science, have you read that?

tags: , ,

.

literature

Included with the best blog writing about literature in the
Literature Carnival #6.

Comments

  1. #1 Anthony Kendall
    January 26, 2006

    I have never heard of this genre before, but with the proliferation of writers and voices on the internet, it’s not surprising that this new genre has emerged. I would love to read some LabLit; maybe I need to carve a space into my reading pile for the likes of “Paper.” (what a fantastic name for a book, having just finished writing my first few papers, I could definitely turn it into a book–though not a very good one)

  2. #2 coturnix
    January 26, 2006

    I have just learned from that SEED has a contest for this type of fiction if you want to try your hand at it.
    I have read “Brazzavile Beach” this summer and loved it. Andrea Barrett’s Voyage Of The Narwhal is excellent. So is the “Darwin’s Shooter”. I enjoyed Jennifer Vanderbes’ “Easter Island” a lot, too. Also try Rameau’s Niece and Evolution Of Jane by Cathleen Schine and The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff. For something more raunchy, try something by Perri Klass, like “Recombinations”.

  3. #3 coturnix
    January 26, 2006

    I looked at their list. Some of what they listed I consider to be SF, but OK. Djerassi’s and Lodge’s books, Connie Willis’ Belwether, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White, a great list I intend to explore further.

    BTW, the one-liner for the Brazzaville Beach is all wrong. It is about a botanist-turned-primatologist studying chimps (not gorillas), getting in a big fight over primacy with the Boss, getting married to a mathematician who is going crazy over time. Lots of science. Lots of action. Lots of intrigue. Cool lcharacters. Gripping.

  4. #4 hilllady
    January 26, 2006

    I don’t think this is a new genre at all–just a new way of pitching a manuscript. A good story will always be a good story, whether the protagonist is a scientist or not. But I hope naming the category brings scientist-writers out of the woodwork, because there are so many good stories to tell, and so many scientists who can write. Brazzaville Beach is wonderful book, by the way. I wouldn’t describe it as “LabLit” so much as “Existential Crisis Lit” (but maybe that’s not an official category either).

  5. #5 aidan
    January 26, 2006

    i think it’s a great idea to combine literature with science. so much beauty (to quote that guy in american beauty). Another good site for this is ‘the scientific creative quarterly’ out of the university of british columbia, see the link on my link list.

  6. #6 Caio de Gaia
    January 26, 2006

    I don’t know, most scientists lead nerdy and boring lifes. Just look at the number of science blogs. People with interesting lifes don’t have time to write a blog, or (the ultimate losers) don’t have time to comment in other people’s blogs. This kind of literature is really about science or about the guy who studies an erupting vulcano, deadly disease, exotic species in the middle of a war, some asteroid going to hit the Earth?

  7. #7 Corkscrew
    January 26, 2006

    Would stuff like A Beautiful Mind qualify as LabLit?

  8. #8 latina marie
    January 27, 2006

    i’ve never read lablit, and i also have never heard of most of the listed titles, but i am definitely interested in reading some of them.

  9. #9 parrotslave
    January 27, 2006

    I look forward to reading a LabLit book by you, Hedwig.

  10. #10 GrrlScientist
    January 27, 2006

    Anthony; with all the legal, medical and law enforcement books out there, it’s really strange to realize that there are (almost) no real scientist books out there that aren’t sci-fi. but the thing that i find most amazing about this is the fact that i had no clue this genre existed.

    i also am very interested to get my hands on a copy of Paper. i’d review it here if i could (hint, hint, to anyone out there who knows how to break through the impenetrable walls that surround publishing houses .. Ian??).

    coturnix; hrm .. interesting suggestion. if i can get some good editorial help, i might give it a shot .. although the deadline (15 March) looms ominously ..

    by the way, do you still have those books that you listed? i’d LOVE to read them and review them here if you would ship them to me (i’d pay postage of course, and i’d happily pass them on to other interested peeps or send them back to you — your choice! and i treat books with great respect so they would not be ruined, either).

    HillLady; hey, welcome! it’s good to see you commenting here.

    i think existential crisis literature pervades all boundaries .. and probably drives most writers, although i am not sure.

    Aidan; it’s good to see you here, i’ve missed you!

    i do have a link to Science Creative Quarterly and was actually preparing a manuscript for their writing contest but then i chickened out and didn’t send it. one of these days, someone out there has to patent a “self esteem pill” that actually works because nothing (well, except alcohol — sometimes) has worked for me.

    Caio de Gaia; so i assume you are one of the “ultimate losers” whom you speak of with such authority? by the way, even thought my Spanish is rusty, i can see that you have a very interesting blog.

    Corkscrew; i don’t know if A Beautiful Mind would qualify as LabLit (i’ve not read it, but i did see the movie on DVD). but it seemed that being a scientist was secondary to the real story, the ravages of mental illness.

    Latina Marie; i hope the editor of LabLit is reading these comments because they would make her happy!

    ParrotSlave; you are very sweet! i know i would love to write a book (i actually think i have several books hiding inside, and a fair amount of poetry, too) and i’d be thrilled/honored to have my blog fans show up for readings. that would be fabulous beyond words.

  11. #11 James Aach
    January 27, 2006

    I’m to have an essay on science and publishing posted at LabLit.com in the near future. In the meantime, my insider novel of the nuclear power industry, “Rad Decision” is available at no cost to readers at RadDecision.blogspot.com.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, tech icon.

  12. #12 CharlieAmra
    January 29, 2006

    I have read some books, but they used the term science-in-fiction, as apposed to science fiction or LabLit. Carl Djerassi (of the birth control pill fame) has written several novels, Cantor’s Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit and No being the most noteworthy.

  13. #13 Doran
    January 29, 2006

    Hooray for Procrastination! The wonderful Piled Higher and Deeper – phdcomics.com by Jorge Cham. Thats at least one good piece of LabLit and it comes in everbody’s favorite – Comicbook form.

  14. #14 GrrlScientist
    January 29, 2006

    i am doing my best to get my hands on some LabLit so i can review it here. if anyone can help me in this endeavor, i’d appreciate it. so far, i am probably going to borrow books from some of my commenters and from the library (what little they have, that is).

  15. #15 Julia
    January 30, 2006

    Lab-romance – that’s what scientists really need. ;-) There are some mysteries set in labs: a recent Linda Barnes (title?), an awkward dot-com one called Knockout Mouse, Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk has a hilarious drug-development sub-plot. Andrea Barrett’s stuff is actually literature, but it’s historical . . . hmm. Guess we better get busy writing some!

  16. #16 GrrlScientist
    January 31, 2006

    Julia; a scientist’s version of Love in the Time of Cholera? that sounds like it has possibilities, at least.

    thanks for the titles. i had actually heard about the book, Knockout Mouse .. but from whom? i don’t remember. have you read any of the books you list? do you still own them? maybe we can arrange a LabLit book lending club .. then, at least i won’t have to wait forever (2 months average!) for the NYC library to get the books i seek.

  17. #17 Jennifer Rohn
    January 31, 2006

    I’m the author of the Nature piece coining the term ‘lab lit’ and the editor of LabLit.com – and have really enjoyed reading your comments here. We are certainly going to have a look at the additional books you’ve mentioned, so thanks for all the ideas. Thanks also for correcting our blurb of Brazzaville – the editorial team is perennially sleep-deprived, and clearly our ability to distinguish primate genera is the first faculty to malfunction under stressful conditions!

    If any of you are interested, there is currently a stimulating thread on the LabLit.com forums (in the Science in Novels category) initiated by scientist/novelist Gregory Benford about the overlap between science fiction and lab lit. And if any of you have an interest in this sort of fiction and want to contribute to LabLit.com, we’d love to chat further with you. Contact details are on the site.

  18. #18 amanda m.
    January 31, 2006

    Do you happen to have a higher res file of the picture?
    I love it and want to use it as my desktop wallpaper.

    Thanks,
    amanda

  19. #19 coturnix
    February 5, 2006

    In place of a Trackback – I wrote a post about this, too , with my own choices.

  20. #20 Sylvia
    February 5, 2006

    Hi! I got here via Much Madness’ Lit Carnival. I’ve never heard of Lab Lit but it sounds interesting (I’m also a scientist, though a lowly BSc). I’ll have to check it out. Good luck with the job hunt!

  21. #21 Anne
    October 25, 2007

    One of my favourite examples of this is Lateral Science, particularly the Glitch and Hodges stuff. It’s not exactly what you’re describing: it’s mostly comedy, and it seems more in the spirit of Scientific American’s old Amateur Scientist column. For example, the Victorian nitrogen laser is described with enough accuracy to make it sound like it could actually work.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.