I write primarily speculative fiction, which, without checking the wikipedia definition, I would loosely define as stories set in a world in which at least one element is unlikely to be real, or in a time that is not the present or known history. In other words, something is made-up in a way that's clearly apparent to the reader. In the same way that the theater has a fourth wall, there's a fifth wall in the reader's mind: what they know to be realistic. Not a wall, but the ceiling. Speculative fiction removes the ceiling.
Imagination plays a role in all literature. We ask the reader to imagine what we describe, and we ask them to trust our imagination to take them somewhere. In speculative fiction, imagination is made explicit. It's an undeniable presence in the story. This is not to say that literary fiction isn't highly imaginative, even transformative, or that there isn't a continuum between what most people see as literary and what is often defined as "genre." But one of the things I love most about speculative fiction is that it doesn't merely ask my reader to believe in the plausibility of my story - it asks them to trust me, because I am about to tell them something impossible, and if they stay with me they're going to enjoy the fabrication.
For a while, I wrote what would typically be described as literary fiction. I wanted to be a literary author. My work flirted with the speculative, but stayed on the respectable side. Then a longtime friend, Robert V.S. Redick, saw his first work of fantasy published, and I began to think about what I really wanted to achieve as an author. Not in terms of wealth or notoriety, but what kind of relationship I wanted to have with the people who read my work.
As a young person, I read books across a variety of genres. The works I found most compelling - the ones that opened my mind to new possibilities - were speculative. I've written before about how re-reading Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" prompted me to write my first fan letter as an adult. When I read that book as a kid, the ending twisted my expectations and changed the way I viewed what it meant to be a fully-actualized person.
This was the kind of fiction I loved the best, and I was afraid to write it because I held it in such high regard. We all know that bad speculative fiction is terrible. The imaginative elements fail like structural members and collapse into a schlocky mess. I think that's one of the reasons that so-called genre fiction occupies a place somewhere below "literary" works in the pop-culture stratification. Many people who love science fiction and fantasy still see them as a guilty pleasure and little more.
But I choose to write speculative fiction, because imaginative works have shown me the world as it could be. When I write, I feel connected to myself as an early reader, a young person whose mind was blown by authors I now revere. I remember the part of myself that experiences awe and savors those moments when your expectations collapse like a failing ceiling, when your feet leave the carpet and you discover you can fly, and even as you realize you're dreaming, you rise out of the house you've inhabited all your life.