I hate being on the defensive about writing fantasy. And yet I find I am, all the time.
When people find out I am a writer, their first questions is: ‘What sort of books do you write?’
I am tempted to answer, ‘Very good ones’, or something similar because I do get sick of seeing the interest die the moment I reply ‘Fantasy’ , to be replaced with a look that says, ‘Oh, trashy stuff.’ (Unless they think I mean porn, in which case I get very strange looks indeed).
It truly is amazing how many people who would never dream of reading fantasy are so sure it is crap. I’d love to know why they have arrived at this conclusion. (If there is someone reading this who feels that way, please come and tell me why … I am genuinely curious and I promise not to bite your head off).
Yet it seems even ‘literary’ sf authors get hit with the same contempt, so what hope have I got? Over on Langford’s Ansible March issue is a story about the UK writer, Iain Banks, who writes both ‘literary’ works and SF. (I love his work, both kinds)
Iain Banks‘s new book… is variously described. An invitation to the related `The Herald Sunday Herald Book Series’ event calls it `his first literary novel in almost five years’ — as distinct from illiterary novels like The Algebraist (2004)?
Private Eye’s phrasing is `Banks’s first “proper” novel (as opposed to the sci-fi stuff he turns out under the name of Iain M. Banks) for five years.’
And Radio 4’s Saturday Review, after acknowledging this author’s habit of alternating the `terrestrial’ and the `intergalactic’, went on to say: `The Steep Approach to Garbadale is his first novel for five years …’
Apparently, you see, when an excellent literary novelist writes sf, he suddenly stops writing well and writes such trash that it doesn’t even qualify as a novel. Or he doesn’t write a novel, he “turns out stuff”.
Other literary writers who suddenly write a fantasy actually write “magical realism” or some other catch phrase, because of course such a wonderful writer couldn’t possibly write fantasy, could they?
When I first had books published in Australia, they were unavailable in Malaysia, because I couldn’t interest the publisher’s distributor in supplying them to book shops here – Australian books, he said, were too expensive for the Malaysian market.
But I was being well-reviewed in Malaysian newspapers, so I approached a bookshop in Bangsar. I also wanted a bookshop I could send people to when they asked where to buy copies. I offered the proprietor a win-win solution. I was willing to supply the books, and he didn’t have to pay me until they were sold. He refused the offer, and told me that he didn’t stock non-literary works and the kind of people who read “those” kind of books (i.e. trashy fantasy?) didn’t come into his shop anyway.
While saying goodbye to him, a customer caught sight of the sample book I had brought along, started talking to me – and bought the book from me, right there in the shop where “people who read those kind of books” weren’t supposed to shop, right under the nose of the proprietor.
The next time I was in that bookshop, I saw he had copies of Harry Potter all over the place. Sigh.
It seems an obvious thing to say, but shouldn’t every book be judged on its merits?
It seems equally obvious, but apparently also needs to be said: shouldn’t you read a book first before you judge its literary merit or otherwise?
How does one define ‘literary’ anyway?
I think it was Miss Snark who said something along the lines of:
Literary novels get good reviews and commercial novels get good sales.
And one of her readers said something like this:
A literary novel impresses you with the beauty of its prose rather than its story.
In a commercial novel, the story comes first and if you are noticing the prose, you’ve got a problem.
My book group used to argue a lot about this. About the only definition we could agree on was that of a ‘classic’ as a book that was going to last beyond its immediate generation. Something that was going to continue to be read 30 years and more further down the line.
Anyone have a good definition of a ‘literary’ work?