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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Should SF/F authors read in their genre?

Apparently this is the next big issue that people are discussing across the blogosphere, and likely elsewhere. It all started, so it seems, with an interview Pat over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist did with David Bilsborough. Some people have taken great offense with certain things Mr. Bilsborough said and it has sparked a bit of a feud in the genre world about whether or not authors should read within their genre.

Now, to what Mr. Bilsborough said that apparently has some people in a tiffy, and has other people raising their defensive walls:
I don't see why it [fantasy] should be respected. With the obvious JRR exception, (and possibly Bernard Cornwell's "Starkadder / Vargr Moon") I have to say that I'm not the greatest fan of fantasy, at least not the swords & sorcery tradition with all its preposterousness and banality. I've read a fair few fantasy books in my life, and am always surprised that such stale, hackneyed and vapid pulp should get published at all. I particularly have problems with US fantasy; there are definite exceptions, of course, but in my opinion the Americans just don't get it, with their phony Olde-Englishness, green tights, bucket boots, square-jawed 'Rone Garet' heroes, pretty-but-with-a-hidden-fire 'Fern Leah' love interests, hissing insidious black-robed 'Sith Mordax' villains, or whatever it is they harp on about in their hollow regurgitations of Conan, Star Wars or Buffy.

Is it any wonder spec. fiction has so little respect?
This is what has got people upset, and rightly so. What really hits home is his apparent disdain for the genre. He specifically says, "I am not the greatest fan of fantasy." How much clearer does it have to get that this guy pretty much hates the genre, with some very minor, and, albeit, obvious exceptions. Everyone says Tolkien is fantabulous, because to not do so is akin to telling Christians that the Bible was written by Satan worshipers. And then you throw out Cornwell, another who has quite a bit of respect in the same fashion as Tolkien due to the types of stories he tells. But, anyone can toss those names out without having read them, presuming that liking said authors is an indicator of one's worth.

And then there's that opening line: "I don't see why it should be respected." Excuse me? You're writing in a genre you don't feel should be respected? So, by default, we should just look at you as another of those hack writers that you so despise, because, hey, fantasy doesn't deserve any respect? I don't really care if you read within the genre. That's pretty much pointless to me. John Varley told me in an interview he reads mostly mysteries, but he writes science fiction. And he's good at science fiction. One doesn't have to be superbly versed in genre to write in it. I simply have problems with this presumption that just because the genre has quite a few writers who basically write derivative garbage that it should be treated with no respect whatsoever, with exception to a pair of writers who only until recently began pushing out of the land of "crap literature" into the literary academia (the supposed "good literature"). If that's so, then all literature, by extension, deserves no respect. Literary fiction isn't graced with a tremendous amount of originality, nor has it been founded upon only great books. There are plenty of crappy, completely useless and utterly pointless novels that have been under the label of "literary fiction" (and I have read quite a few of these crappy lit fic novels). The same can be said about every single genre that has been created and will be created. There are great and crappy science fiction novels, horror novels, romance novels, mystery novels, detective novels, etc. There's no such thing as a genre of perfection, one in which all the novels are great. Yet we give respect to certain genres while shunning others ("we" being the literate and educated, primarily the academia), despite their imperfections and unoriginality.

Of course fantasy has an abundance of what one might call "lesser literature". Yet this is what people want. They enjoy it. It's entertaining and that's it's purpose. Shouldn't we respect it for that? Just because you don't like a specific set of writers, or a specific class of fantasy, doesn't mean we should shun it to the bottom of a well, forsaking it to be consumed by people who, I suppose, have to be mindless nitwits simply because they like such things. Sometimes entertainment is all you need. That doesn't make those that read it particularly idiotic or mindless. We should be thankful that they're reading at all, and even more thankful that it's because of the people reading "such stale, hackneyed and vapid pulp", as Bilsborough says, that we even have an industry revolving around the act of writing. Entertainment value, no matter how desperately you want to argue against this, is keeping literature alive. So I say celebrate vapid pulp, because without it there wouldn't be a fantasy genre, or if there was one, it would be so small and under-appreciated that nobody would really care if Bilsborough released a new novel.

Lastly, of course, is the comment about Americans, and I put this last for a reason. It doesn't bother me all that much. Yes, I think it's rather offensive that because I was born in America I'm suddenly devoid of taste, and that my choice of reading is cause for ridicule. What does being American have to do with it? That's my question. This is a lot of that "Brits are better" attitude that I find to be rather silly. I think it's an inborn pride that has never let up, and, of course, Americans have a similar attitude (or some of us anyway). Some of the discussions about the American comment have been somewhat ridiculous, in my opinion. While I would agree that calling Americans phony and essentially useless is offensive, I don't think it will affect Bilsborough's readership much. Remember, Pat and the other blogs discussing this comprise of a very small number of people (big by blogging standards, though). How many people who see Bilsborough's book in stores are going to know that this guy said derogatory things about Americans? And how many that know are going to actually care? Probably not that many. I'm not going to hold Bilsborough's American comment against him as much as his other statements, and even those other statements might not stop me from reading his work (if his work sucks, it will).

Now, to the question at hand, which has, I think, been answered: Should SF/F authors read in their genre?

I personally don't think it matters. It might help make one a better genre writer, but in the end I think it's irrelevant and a somewhat pointless requirement to place on authors. If the book is good, why does it matter at all if the writer reads within his/her genre? Presumably, you wouldn't be able to tell anyway. You'd just call it a good book and that would be that.

What do you all think?

P.S.: Yes, I am well aware of the fact that Bilsborough specifically said "sword & sorcery", but like science fiction, fantasy subgenres blend, so making such a statement is basically reflecting on all fantasy. The only way this wouldn't be true is if, unbeknownst to me, publishing companies were stamping the specific subgenre on fantasy books. Since I've never seen this I'm going to assume that it doesn't exist, and if it does, it's not common.

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10 comments:

  1. Seriously, what fantasy are these guys reading?! I don't get it. Either I rule at picking non-cliche stuff off shelves, or they just don't sell the volume of crap here. I've never seen an s+s book in my life, only heard of them.

    Who is that guy, anyway? I'll never buy one of his books ...

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  2. No, they sell the same volume of crap in the UK too (well, proporitionately the same, since we do publish more books per year here in the states than you guys do, but yeah).
    My questions is: what constitutes sword & sorcery? I mean, that term alone could mean just about anything in fantasy short of urban stuff.

    I've never heard of him before. Maybe he writes good stuff, but I think if he intends to write in the fantasy genre he should at least treat it with some respect, especially since he expects readers to respect his work.

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  3. S+S is like ... I always think of it as dungeons and dragons type thing, with people randomly going on cliche quests. Whereas the stuff I read is usually set in a medieval-ish world, which happens to have swords, and since fantasy largely deals with magic ... sorcery. I mean, you can slap the s+s term on any fantasy that has a sword in it, if you're a jerk. Harry Potter is s+s!

    I'm getting confused now and I could rant on for ages about this, so I'll shut up.

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  4. He should read The Malazan Book of the Fallen lol, a fairly original piece of fantasy work in my opinion. And yeah, who is this guy? Never heard of him. He sounds like he based his opinion of fantasy on the "Eragon" movie lol. So basically what he's saying is that he's going to write novels similar to Tolkien's work? Or is he going to write something that he hates just reading?

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  5. His work is actually not all that original (the person I'm talking about in the original post). I saw some of his books when I was at Powell's City of Books in Portland, OR. Not all that new and different and rumor has it that his books aren't very good anyway.

    And apparently he is going to write something he hates reading. I mean, I don't honestly think genre authors have to read genre, but they shouldn't hate the genre they write it. That's sort of like working at a job you hate even though you could work somewhere else for the same pay...

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  6. Sounds like he has some mental issues to deal with lol.

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  7. Possibly, or he's just read a lot of really crappy fantasy novels and gave up? I don't know. He might have good reasons in his mind, but a lot of people don't see it.

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  8. Hmmm, I never realized that this could be such a controversial issue.

    I'm not as concerned about defining sub-genres or whether or not my tastes are eclectic enough for the pedants. I like a good story. I love a fantastic story.

    I write SF/F because I love it. If I didn't love reading it, I would have never started writing it. End of story.

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  9. He probably hasn't ever read any good fantasy because he disdains the genre as a whole and if what you say is true, that his books kinda suck, then he may actually have benefitted from a couple of look-sees into fantasy.

    That said - who cares what the author reads as long as what s/he writes is good?

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  10. Tonya: That's a good point. I wonder why someone writes within a genre they don't like...seems somewhat strange, right?

    Loopdilou: It's possible he's read very few good fantasy books. I wouldn't know. I don't know much about the guy, to be honest.
    And to the last point: I agree, generally speaking.

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