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?