I’m gonna wade into the Amazon/Hachette quagmire real quick, because I feel like there’s something obvious that’s not being said. I’m trusting you guys to let me out alive. Background: Amazon.com and Hachette (one of the world’s big 5 publishers) have been bashing out the terms of their latest trade deal. Amazon have been playing hardball, stripping the buy buttons from Hachette author’s books and removing them from searches for leverage. Hachette’s been crying foul. (Full disclosure: Hachette recently bought my UK publisher Quercus, so there’s that.) So, if your major interest in books is buying and reading them (and I don’t mind telling you that I love you), if you’ve noticed the kerfuffle at all, you may have thought something like this: “My heart is a barren place where the fucks I gave once did grow/Amazon may be a ruthless profit-hungry corporation but surely Hachette is no less so?” * And I wouldn’t blame you. Amazon is of course, considerably larger than Hachette, but Hachette is only a tiny piece of €8bn French megacorp Lagardere. Seeing this fight play out can feel a bit like watching one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies: two colossal inhuman entities punch each other over and over again, making a huge amount of noise, and yet you just don’t care. Which is why I’d encourage you to stop thinking about the relationship Amazon has with Hachette, and start thinking about the relationship it has with us: the people who buy, and read books. At the moment that relationship is… pretty good, actually. Okay, they might not pay as much tax as we’d like, and there are some ugly stories going around about how they treat their employees, but still. They’ve been really good to consumers. There’s a wide range of products (not just books) they’ve made it easier (and in some cases possible) to get access to. Most importantly, they give us what we want, they give it to us fast, and they give it to us cheap. For now. Why do I say ‘for now’, in that menacingly portentous way? Well, because of the following facts: 1) Amazon has a huge market share. Around 30% of the total US book market, and judging by Hachette’s numbers, 60% of all ebooks sold in the US, 70% in the UK. 2) Amazon benefits from market conditions that make it difficult for other companies to compete with them. One big one is DRM law. Cory Doctorow gives a good rundown on this here, but the gist is only Amazon can legally remove the software that locks kindle ebooks to your kindle. If you switch to a Nook, or a Kobo so you can start buying e-books from someone else, you face either losing access to the kindle library you’ve already built up, or breaking the law. 3) Amazon is seeking to create more of these market conditions. The deal it’s trying broker with Hachette apparently includes a ‘Most Favoured Nation’ clause, which would stop Hachette from allowing its books to be sold cheaper than on Amazon. Anywhere. No-one would be able to take customers away from Amazon by undercutting them. 4) Amazon actually isn’t making as much money from us as they could be. Yet. Believe it or not, Amazon actually reported a loss in 2012, and barely scraped a profit in 2013, because it’s kept its margins so low while it hoovered up the market. Even so, investors continue to pile money into its stock. The financial markets not being known for their altruism, those investors are presumably expecting (and will demand) that those margins eventually rise. Taking all that together, you don’t need a degree in economics to see a future where Amazon can put the price of books up to pretty much whatever it likes, where it faces significant shareholder pressure to do so, and we just have to suck it up. This isn’t a moral statement. It’s just the economic reality: the more we buy from Amazon the more other book retailers go out of business, the greater Amazon’s power to set the range and price of books becomes. If all this sounds to you like the paranoid ramblings of a fantasy author with an agenda, well, fair enough, but I’d point you back at one of the tactics Amazon’s been using in its scrap with Hachette – removing the ‘buy’ buttons. The only way this exerts any leverage on the publisher is if there are people who want a book, and who would buy the book from Amazon, who won’t or can’t buy it from anyone else. That’s the definition of monopoly power, and Amazon is already using it. So I guess the question is, in a future where they have more of it, why would you expect them to stop? Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean Amazon is evil, it doesn’t mean that if a publisher was in a position of market dominance it wouldn’t behave exactly the same way. Amazon’s just doing what big corps do, pursuing its own interests. Hitherto, those interests have aligned pretty closely with the consumer’s, but things change. The reason this is important though, I mean really important, isn’t actually about Amazon. Whisper who dares, but it might be even more important than books. Here’s why: Consumers – i.e. we – wield a huge amount of power in today’s globalized economy.Look at it this way: if you live in a democracy you probably get to vote for your government every four or five years, but in the meantime, every dollar you spend is a vote for more of what you spent that dollar on. It’s a vote for more of the company that sold it to you, and for more companies to act the way that company did so they can get ahead. That’s just the way the world is now, we don’t get to choose whether we vote with our wallets, the only choice we have is whether or not we’re going to do it consciously and effectively. It’s maybe the single greatest source of power we have in the modern world and we have a tendency to be… a little short-termist with it. Look at global warming. Every climate scientist under the sun is lining up to tell us that unchecked, the economic choices we’re making are going to end the world as we know it. I wish that was hyperbole but it’s not. The best experts we have on this stuff tell us were staring down the barrel of increasingly severe floods, droughts (and hence food shortages) and enforced mass migration, but we’re still flying, driving and burning as merrily as we ever have. Why? Because the worst of the problems are likely to fall a few decades into the future, while cutting back would cost us now. I’m not saying Amazon’s dominance of the e-book market is a problem on that scale. It might not even be a problem at all, I mean: ‘available fast and cheap’ is pretty persuasive, as Amazon’s market share bears out. But I do think it’s important to take the power we have through and over markets seriously, and to get into the habit of considering the impact on the future of those markets when we buy. These kinds of decisions, the ‘where should I buy my books ‘ and how ‘where should I get my fried chicken’ decisions, are the paddling pool where we can develop that habit, before we launch into the full-on transatlantic swim of tackling climate change. Intuitively, I think most of us understand that trying to get as much as we can as cheap as we can right now can endanger our ability to get what we need in years to come. But we need to start buying like we understand it, and to be honest, I think we need to do it fast. *Forsooth and verily, poetry is not my forte. +I know there’s a hefty whack of economic privilege inherent in this perspective, and it’s certainly true that for many people not choosing the cheapest, most immediate source of a good simply isn’t an option. But I don’t think that makes it any less of an imperative for those of who can afford to take a longer term view to do so. Quite the opposite. CORRECTION: 31/7/14 Amazon didn’t remove buy buttons from Hachette physical books, but it did remove the pre-order buttons from them, as well as not stocking them so they took longer to arrive.
Loncon is a-comin’ round the bend. Here’s what I’m up to and when. If you’re around in the Excel, do come say hey!
Thursday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)
YA writers seem particuarly keen on supernatural monsters. Have we mined out the traditional ones — the Vampires, demons and zombies? What fresh angles would breathe new afterlife into them? Or do we need a whole slew of fresh beasts to keep the reader’s interest?
Oisin McGann, Tom Pollock, Sarah Rees Brennan, V. E. Schwab, Catherynne M. Valente
YA Books Set in London
Thursday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)
Dark alleys, cocky cockneys, a stewpot of cultures from every corner of the globe and layer upon layer of history… London is the perfect setting for adventures of every sort. What are the best YA books that London has inspired? Have any of them added to the city’s mystique? What can the viewpoint of a YA protagonist bring to the reader’s perception of this magnificent city that an adult viewpoint couldn’t?
Tom Pollock (M), Edward James , Ian McDonald , Gillian Polack , Liesel Schwarz
Urban Fantasy: London
Friday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)
The early twenty-first century commercial explosion of urban fantasy — first person, coexisting supernatural creatures, often noirish — was, at least initially, driven by the American market and American writers. Increasingly, however, writers such as Kate Griffin, Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell are writing contemporary urban fantasy set in the UK and, in particular, in London. How has crossing the Atlantic changed this subgenre? How is it similar to or different from older forms of British urban fantasy?
Gillian Redfearn (M), Tony Ballantyne , MaryAnn Johanson , Suzanne McLeod, Tom Pollock, Russell Smith
Reading: Tom Pollock
Friday 20:30 – 21:00, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)
Okay, so this is a half-hour reading slot. Which is INSANE. I I will read briefly from Our Lady of The Streets, but to make the time I will also read from anything you want to bring a long for me to read from: my personal brownie recipe! Your book! Dinorotica (depending on the age group and appetite in the room)*
*I reserve the right to refuse things if they’re offensive and or copyrighted against this sort of thing. Also to ask for help with dialogue from the audience. (if there still is one.)
Who misplaced the Monster Compendium?
Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)
When was the last time a fantasy novel had a golem or a cockatrice? How long is it since someone fought a giant, flesh-eating beast instead of another dude with a sword? Where did all the monsters go? With quest plots out of fashion, deus ex machina ditched, treasure-hunting too economically simplistic, and stories more likely to lavish pages on their heroes’ motivations for fighting than on blow-by-blow battles with deadly creatures, is the monster still relevant in today’s fantasy?
Julie Crisp (M), Tom Pollock , Adrian Tchaikovsky , K. J. (Kirsten) Bishop , Rjurik Davidson
Sunday 15:00 – 16:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)
THERE. WILL. BE. BISCUITS.
Tom Pollock, Michelle Sagara
So we’re now exactly four weeks from the completion of the Skyscraper Throne Trilogy.
*Fixed smile and uncomfortable stare as tiny supernova occurs between ears*
I’m going to be around and about the place to read, be interviewed pop up on panels and convention dancefloors and generally shill myself like a £5.99 miracle diet pill.
*GASP* at the quality of the homemade brownies, *MARVEL* at the adventures of Elizabeth Bradley and Parva Khan, spilling from my very lips. *TOLERATE* my nerve-induced attempts are making you laugh.
RSVP here if you’re a Facebook kind of person. We’ll be heading to the Pillars of Hercules in Soho for drinks, chatter and collapsing. from about 7.30 if you can’t make the signing.
Seriously guys, I cannot even begin to tell you how much of a blast this was last year. And this year, Nick Harkaway, Sarah Lotz, Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear will be there. Come geek out with us!
12 August, 6pm - Fantasy In The Court, Goldsboro books, London
Come hang with me and a shitload of excellent fantasy authors including Joe Abercrombie, Lauren Beukes, Ben Aaronnovitch at one of the best indie bookshops in London. You’ll need a ticket, but you can get one at the link above.
17 – 20 August - Worldcon 2014, Excel Centre, London
This is the daddy. I’d list the amazing people who are coming, but I’d still be here typing when next year’s convention comes around. If you aren’t already coming, do. And if you are coming, say hi!
I’ll also be at Fantasycon in September and Bristolcon in October, and I’ll update this post
I went back to the house I grew up in today. Jen had her birthday party in that part of town, and it had been nearly ten years since I saw the place, so I thought I’d see what had happened to it.
I walked down the long straight avenue of Crystal Palace parade, through web of spindly shadows cast by the radio mast. I walked, and then ran, down the hill, past the school my sister went to, and a little before sunset, I found myself standing on the old railway bridge behind our road, the points burning in the dusk, and I looked down on the house, with it’s x-shaped crossbeams under the slates and it’s messy garden backing onto the tracks.
I never cry when I got to visit Mum’s grave. I don’t even really get choked up. I guess graves are just one of those symbols where the meaning attached by our culture and the meaning attached instinctively by my heart don’t line up. Her grave – actually a really lovely spot in a garden under a daphne bush – always seems empty to me.
But I cried tonight, and I think I know why.
It’s because that’s what I’m mourning, not her presence in the ground, but her absence from everywhere else. And most especially, her absence from that old house.
We left it soon after she did, and I haven’t gone back until today, but in a weird way it felt good. Like standing for a few moments in the warmth of the long remembered summer of my childhood.
Yep, as usual puppets and explosions and stirring trumpets can mean only one thing.
At Forbidden Planet, London, on August 7th we will launch….
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS!
And it will look like this:
And, because it’s one of my launches, there will be brownies, and they will look like this:
And if you come and say hello I will be so excited, I’ll look like
This is the last book in the series, and it would be utterly amazing if you guys came and celebrated it with me/came to the pub afterwards and poured enough coke into me so that I ping off the walls like that bit in Star Wars II when Yoda goes bonkers with a lightsaber.
FB page here, and if you RSVP’d it would ease my neurotic need to be loved no end:
As ever, it’s a pleasure working with you.
* Tiger make up not guaranteed, as I don’t know how to do that to myself.
There’s been a whole lot of ink spilled already in what feels like round 9 quadrillion of the debate on the value of YA, and I have only this to add:
We all know what books (or any kind of story) can be at their best, right? A vehicle for empathy, a glimpse into the joys and sorrows and above all the intricacy of another mind. At their core, stories are a chance – brief, and partial and astonishing – to live as someone who isn’t us.
YA books, like Nova Ren Suma says, aren’t books for teenagers but books about teenagers. Writers write and publishers publish for anyone who’ll read and buy their work. What makes a book YA is what’s on the page, not the part of the bookstore it’s stacked in.
So to my mind, when someone says ‘adults shouldn’t read YA’ they’re saying ‘adults have nothing to gain from the experience of empathising with teen characters’, or more bluntly, ‘people like me don’t need to empathize with people like that.’
This is the same impulse that lies behind the claim that boys need to read boys’ books, so we should publish more books about boys to get them reading. It’s the impulse behind the argument that we can’t publish books with diverse characters in science fiction and fantasy because the readership won’t buy them. Here as there, it’s wrong, and it’s sad.
Of course it is. It’s the exact opposite of what reading all about.
Here, have a video of a guy dropping a slinky in HD Slow-Mo. Not because it’s relevant, just because it’s cool.
I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but at some point when I was a teenager I came to believe that hating myself was the only way I could make myself better. I didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.
I decided that judging myself harshly was the only way to protect myself from what I perceived to be the harsh judgments of others, and more important – the only way to motivate myself to improve. And shouldn’t I aspire to that? To get better? Always?
I told myself I was being unflinching, when I was really just unforgiving. I forgot those two weren’t the same thing.
I became goal-oriented. I set myself targets and sometimes I reached them and sometimes I didn’t, but even when I did they gave me little joy. Everything I accomplished got assimilated by the Borg that was the baseline. Every achievement was proven insufficient by the sheer fact that I’d done it. The definition of where I needed to be was wherever I hadn’t gotten to yet.
Everything was judged by the same mechanism. How much food I let myself eat, how many miles I made myself run, how much work I made myself do. It infected the way I think about art, and about writing -even something as subjective as that - it makes me crave numbers: sales figures, rights deals, reviews, ways to quantify an unquantifiable question. How good am I? Where am I? Where should I be? Is time running out to get there?
Control. Control. Control
And with twenty years of proof banked up behind me, I’m still trying to process this fact:
It doesn’t work.
I don’t think goal-oriented works for me. I’m not sure the ‘strive-achieve-strive for the next thing’ is a good framework for my life. What to replace it with? I don’t know, but I’m going to try some stuff.
I’m going to start with generosity and interest. Keep it simple: I’m just going to try to learn to be okay with not knowing how ‘good’ I am, because I’ll never know, because there isn’t an answer.
Instead, I’m just going to try to stay as interested and as generous as I can, because everything I’m really proud of happened either doing something I love, or doing things for people I love.
I don’t know if this sounds familiar to you. I do know some people who I think are the same. Maybe this sounds really hippy shit to you, or maybe I’m just working it out for myself, but I’ll leave this unlocked just in case anyone else feels like it’s relevant.
Screw it, Ze Frank puts it way better than me
Last night, Sam Sykes, Chuck Wendig and Kate Elliott were chatting about character death and whether it’s becoming an overused trope in fantasy. Unfortunately, I was asleep for most of it, because: time difference, but I’m awake now and ready to stick my oar in. So without further ado…
Five Reasons not to literally Kill Your Darlings
1) It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters:
The question at the heart of almost every story is ‘what do the characters want?’ These are the stakes, and they drive the character’s actions and so drive the plot. They’re also a fantastic opportunity to say something fascinating and specific about the characters themselves. If your lead character is a budding trapeze artist, desperate for a spot on big-top roster, or a burnt-out competitive eater with one last shot at the Carolina Cronut-Consumption Cup, then those stakes give you all manner of fascinating ways into their brains. If, on the other hand, the answer to the question ‘what do they want?’ is just ‘to stay alive,’ then well, so what? Almost everybody wants to stay alive. The stakes express nothing about the people. More than that, the story doesn’t have to be about them at all, it could be about anyone.
2) Dull, dull, dullity dull.
But least life and death stakes make things exciting, right? Well, sadly no. Not for me anyway. The problem is that so much fantasy fiction defaults to life and death stakes that it’s become kinda empty. ‘Life or death’ is now often just another way of saying ‘Win or lose’.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can’t construct a riveting narrative around life and death stakes. The Hunger Games is a perfect example. In the games, winning literally is living, and losing literally means death and I am totally rooting for Katniss to stay alive. But I am rooting for her to live because I like her and want her to win. She’s won me over, by being all brave and resourceful and fragile and resilient and human, and I want her to have what she wants – I would do even if it was an X-factor recording contract. I don’t want her to win merely because it’ll keep her alive.
3) The Tragedy of the Commons
Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, the economics-based argument! (Why am I the only one cheering?)
Ready? Okay, so there’s a field, right? And everyone in town gets to graze their cows on it, and everyone agrees not to graze their cows during September because you need to give the grass time to regrow. Only everyone has an incentive to cheat, and take their cows out at night to graze during September because it saves on buying hay. So everyone does that. Result: the grass has no time to regrow, it dies, the cows die, the field gets sold to developers who build a David Hasselhoff Theme Park on it, everyone loses (or wins, I’m not sure.)
Everyone with me? The field we’re all sharing in common is our reader’s sympathy and attention. They invest both in our characters. Individually, we can generate great shock value by say, beheading the guy you thought was going to be the hero of our epic trilogy at the end of book one, but collectively if everyone does that then readers will just stop trusting us, stop investing in our characters and ultimately just feel less when they read. According to some folks, this is already happening. Which, forsooth, doth roundly suck.
4) When they’re dead, they’re dead.
All future narrative choices to do with that character are now stuck in the fridge next to them, under the eggs stuck to the jam. They’re the funny one? No more jokes. They’re the lovable one? (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon) Someone else needs to make the puppy-eyes from now on. They’re the one with the awesome cobra-launching crossbow? Too bad, NO MORE SHALL THE SKY DARKEN WITH OPHIDIAN QUARRELS FLYING TO SMITE THINE ENEMIES. All the work you and the reader have put in building that character up ends here, so you’d better make it worth it, unless…
5) …you pull @*%~#ing resurrection.
Seriously guys? Seriously. It’s one thing to have life or death stakes, and then follow through on that by killing someone (or a bunch of people.) But it is narrative anthrax to then jerk the reader around by bringing your character back to life just because you decide you miss them. It is just possible to do this in a way that works. But probably only once, and it requires rebasing the narrative stakes away from life and death and putting something else equally weighty in to replace them. Doing it over and over to your lead character (*glares at Steven Moffat*) just eliminates all sense of tension and makes it feel like we’re living in a world where nothing has any consequences.
However, with all of that said, here’s…
One Reason to kill your darlings as dead as a very dead thing:
Because you want to write about death.
Death’s a big deal, it has a hundred per cent fatality rate. It doesn’t make any sense at all to say you shouldn’t include it in a story, because at the end of the day it’s how all stories end. Plus, it’s one of Pratchett’s best characters.
It’s helpful to distinguish death as stakes from death as subject. Loads of stories take death as the latter, which makes sense, because there’s a lot to say. I just finished reading one of the best stories about death I’ve ever seen, George Saunders’ The Tenth Of December. It’s extraordinary because it’s really a story about second chances, and mistakes and forgiveness, and above all about love, which is the only real reason that death matters in the first place.
As ever, write whatever you want to write, read whatever you want to read, and either way godspeed. All I’m saying is that for me as a reader (and as a writer I guess, although it’s a lesson I am totally still learning), the real suspense for any character comes not from one question: Not ‘Will they live?’ not even ‘What do they want?’ but ‘What will they choose?’
Here, have some Dan Le Sac:
P.S. Many, if not all of these points were made on Twitter night by Sam, Chuck, Kate, Jon Grimwood and several others. This is my just my attempt to summarize, catch up and expand on those points.
This was supposed to be a post about Worldbuilding, economics (and possibly The Rock’s abs) because I’m a GIANT NERD, but that’s all going to have to wait.
Why? Because Nick Harkaway tweeted this question yesterday:
Today’s fleeting conundrum: would you rather read a banal writer on a remarkable life, or a remarkable writer on a banal one?
— Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) March 25, 2014
It’s a really interesting question, partly because, as Nick acknowledged about 4 seconds later, it breaks down under scrutiny, like a Viennetta in a staring match with Superman. After all, if a writer can think up and fully communicate a remarkable life, is it fair to call her writing banal? And equally, isn’t revealing the remarkable in the banality of everyday existence precisely one of the things we expect remarkable writers to do?
the viennetta of post-modernism
So the terms are subjective and unstable, and the whole question is clearly as slippery as a catfish in a lube tank, but before we throw up our hands at the sheer Gauloise-smoking postmodernity of it all, let’s take a closer look at those terms.
‘Banal’ carries a bit of a value judgement, but stripped of that, it conveys everyday, quotidian, familiar.
‘Remarkable’ is precisely the opposite. Things invite remark because they aren’t normal, they are unfamiliar. They are strange.
When you get down to it, what Nick’s question seems to be driving at is the tension between the familiar and the alien; between what we know, and what we have to speculate about; between recognition and estrangement,
Between the True and the New*.
Sam Sykes and Simon Spanton, were chatting about this on Twitter the other day, and I stuck my oar in too, despite not having alliterative ‘s’s in my name. Where I think we got to is that all fiction sits somewhere on a spectrum between pure familiarity and pure estrangement, and all fiction needs to combine the two in various creative ways.
China Miéville’s Xenians are, for example pretty estranging, but the scarab-headed Khepri from Perdido St. Station wouldn’t be parseable at all if we weren’t already familiar with what a scarab was. Equally, even mainstream master of the mimetic McEwan (mmmm) has to deliver some new and surprising perspective on familiar life, or else what would be the point of writing about it at all?
When you think about it this way, both the remarkable and the banal in Nick’s diad are necessary. They’re making the text what it is. If you’ve got a really gobsmackingly strange story to tell, maybe an unvarnished workaday style is what you decide you need to convey the tale effectively. Equally any story about the remarkable in the mundane relies for its power on an act of revelation, of surprising you about things so familiar you don’t even see them. You simply couldn’t have that effect if the subject matter was remarkable at first glance.
The “banal”, as Nick puts it here, is playing the role of ‘‘a repository of dull virtues in time of trouble, someone to carry the can, speak truth and own up in class” as er… Nick puts it elsewhere. The Banal is doing the legwork, it’s the Remarkable’s straight man, its sidekick, the reliable doctor to the Remarkable’s deerstalker-wearing opium fiend.
Still, what I think is really interesting in Nick’s original question isn’t even the Banal vs Remarkable bit, but rather the question itself, ‘Would you rather…?’
What do you prefer, as a reader? What kind of reader are you?
Because let’s not forget, it’s a two-stage reaction, this literary chemistry. The reader’s mind does as much work mediating the word as the writer’s does mediating the world. Ultimately, if a story is estranging, it’s because it’s new to the reader, and if it’s true it’s because it feels true to us.
So what kind of stories do you prefer? Is your particular readerly poison immersing yourself in the bizarre and the extraordinary, and finding the ways it relates to the world you know, or is it in discovering the breathtaking in every day life?
Or both? There’s always both. Both is even better.
*(Bear in mind, this is only an experiential tension, not an existential one. There certainly are propositions that are both true and new – the whole endeavour of science is dedicated to finding out what they are – but for a story to feel true when we’re reading it, it must be because it’s triggered a sense of recognition in us, so it has to be, in some mediated way, familiar.)
Last night was The Kitschies, the award for the most intelligent, entertaining and progressive speculative fiction of the year. A marvellous time was had by all. Awards were given to A Tale for the Time Being, Ancillary Justice, the cover of The Age Atomic and Malorie Freaking Blackman who was right there.
Also, I somehow managed to tell one of my favourite authors that he looked like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, but ‘a Wonka, not a Twit.’ This was meant as a compliment. Clearly I am the EMPEROR of smooth.
I love the Kitschies. I love the criteria, I love that they bother to have criteria, rather than relying on some amorphous notion of ‘best’ which provides no basis for discussion. I also really like their mission statement: ‘elevating the tone of the discussion of genre literature in its many forms.’
That word genre, though, conveys a slippery concept at the best of times. I was chatting to a friend at the end of the night, and she said that in her dealings with the industry, she still encountered a certain condescension towards genre fiction. A slight, unspoken scepticism that it could be proper art. Now, being in the speculative fiction community, of course this irritated me, but equally - being in the speculative fiction community, – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen an equal and opposite reaction from certain quarters, with people saying that so called ‘literary fiction’ is dull, pretentious and empty of story.
Is it just me, or are both of these positions nonsense? I don’t just mean wrong, I mean literally devoid of sense, impossible to parse. Why?
Because the distinction between genre and literary fiction is a literal category mistake.
To paraphrase Hank Green. “Dear people who complain about the genres they’re exposed to: EVERYTHING IS GENRE.”
What are genres? They’re categories, branches on a taxonomic tree. They let us group stories together based on qualities (rayguns say, or cowboys, or ‘orrible murders) that those stories share.
But surely, if we’re going use a genre taxonomy to help us understand our stories (and I see no reason we shouldn’t), it makes no sense at all to then turn around and say some of our stories aren’t in a genre. I mean, what puts these stories off the map? Don’t they have qualities we could use to sort them? Of course they do, we just haven’t bothered.
Does any other field of intellectual endeavour do this? You don’t get zoologists saying ‘Platypus, you TRANSCEND genus. You are just a general animal, because frankly with the whole duck-bill, beaver-tail thing we got really confused.’
He is an enigma, isn’t he?
It’s not that the divisions between genres don’t hold – fuzzy and vague though they necessarily are. Some people like books with spaceships, and some like books with cowboys, and it can make sense to group stories that way*. But what makes as much sense as lead-based toothpaste is to say certain books fall outside genre all together.
It’s as though the Sorting Hat were to think really hard before telling Harry Potter, “You transcend Houses! Congratulations, you’ll have to eat your dinner on your own in the floor. Also, no fancy coloured scarf for you. ’ Harry would say Hogwarts needed a new hat, and I’d be inclined to agree.
When we call a book literary as a synonym for ‘non-genre’, we aren’t saying anything significant about the qualities of the book, all we’re saying is that our taxonomy is incomplete. We’re pointing to the gaps in our genre periodic table. The difference with the actual periodic table is that they knew they were missing elements, and when they found an example of one, they put it in. But the Waterstones general fiction departments are heaving with examples of genres we’ve missed, and are we busy painting ‘21st C. Family Drama’ signs for bookshop shelves? Well, are we?
*Sound of crickets*
And that’s another reason I love the Kitschies, because by shortlisting Thomas Pynchon and Ruth Ozeki next to Ann Leckie and Ramez Naam, they collapse the distinction between literary and genre. A far more interesting question is which genre(s) is the work in, and what literary effects are those tropes being used to achieve?
In other words, is it progressive? Is it intelligent? is it entertaining?
Personally, think we need a new Sorting Hat.
*So long as we’re willing to allow stories that contain both spaceships and cowboys to be in both. Ah, Firefly. Seriously, I think this is another thing we sometimes mean when we say a book transcends genre, like people have recently been saying about M.R. Carey’s The Girl With all the Gifts. They mean it will appeal to fans of lots of different genres, which is just another way of saying it’s in lots of different genres, and not outside genre at all.