When you ask “What is Steampunk?”, there are still a number of people who give the answer that it’s a literary genre. (A disproportionate number of those people are Steampunk authors; indeed, the classic, deeply flawed statement “Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction” came from a Victorian Science Fiction author; it’s not exactly an unbiased source.)
I absolutely love and adore literature; I love literary genres. I have an entire apartment full of, basically, books, books, and more books. I adore Cyberpunk; I thrill to Steampunk novels; and I actually hunt through garage sales and library book sales to try to assuage my craving for the genres I collect. (My hoard of 1970s dystopian science fiction books, for example, is second to none. I grant you that most of them are terrible books. But still, I own them – and I’ve even READ them. THAT is dedication.)
So my objection is not any protest against literary genres themselves. It also isn’t intended to devalue the importance of literature in steampunk. Hell, I’m not going to devalue the importance of literature in anything; I believe that the fiction of a culture, its tales and myths and stories, is arguably one of the defining points of being human. (Note that you don’t have to have writing to meet this criteria; humanity’s vast mass of oral tradition is still one of its proudest achievements, even if many of those stories are, sadly, now lost.)
My objection is much simpler: saying that Steampunk is a literary genre is a lot like saying that a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 automobile is really comfortable for sitting inside. It’s perfectly true, and that’s certainly part of the charm of the thing; but it rather misses the point.
Steampunk isn’t a genre of ANYTHING; it’s a multitude of genres and flavors in music, art, theatre, food, philosophy, recreation, vocation–and many, many other things. Sure, literature is a part of it. And absolutely, the thing we now know as “Steampunk” came from a term coined by science fiction author K.W. Jeter, whose work in the 1980s is still influencing and creating the Steampunk we know today. I would never denigrate how important literature is, was, and will continue to be in the process of creating Steampunk.
But Steampunk itself? Steampunk is a collection of the vast set of things which brings human beings together over the longterm in common purpose. In short, Steampunk’s not a genre; Steampunk’s a CULTURE. And that doesn’t just belong to authors; that belongs to anyone who participates in the ever-expanding, ever-evolving, ever-creative world which is Steampunk.