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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Genre Books for Non-Genre People: Still Missing the Point, Folks!

The other day, Damien G. Walter posted the following on his Google+ account:
Now that Fantasy / SF is taking over the mainstream, which books do you recommend to people who have not read it before?
Thus far, two people have responded with posts of their own:  my friend and podcast co-host Paul Weimer and John Stevens.  Each list has a particular perspective for the textual choices, and each is valid in its own way.  But they are also effectively useless lists without a pre-defined "non-genre person."  Whenever lists like this come out, that perspective is almost always ignored.  Nobody seems willing to address the fact that non-genre readers are not a homogeneous group.

Paul's list, for example, includes the following:

  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp
  • Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  • Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman.
The only mention of an audience in his post is a throwaway line about people who read novels.  There's no mention of the things they like to read.  Are they Clive Cussler fans?  Do they prefer the prose of Amy Tan or Ian McEwan?  What about Jonathan Franzen or Ernest Hemingway?  Are they fans of modernist writing, or are they more into the postmodernist crowd?  Or maybe they don't like any of that.  Maybe they're romance readers, or they prefer political thrillers, or regular thrillers.  Or they read Dan Brown or James Paterson (they're both basically genre, I guess).  

The point:  his readers could be anyone, and that makes his selections functionally useless.  Unless you suggest these works to someone you can reasonably expect to enjoy them based on what they already enjoy, you're basically flipping a coin.  You might get that one reader who devours these books the same way Paul clearly has, or you might get that one reader who views these as the reason why genre fiction is worthless.

The more problematic issue here stem's from the list's clear conscious or subconscious assumed or intended readership.  While the invoked audience for these works is overly broad, the actual works presented here fall within a very particular camp of readers.  These are not what most would call "literary novels."  They are, in the most loving way I can say it, pure genre.  Gracing the list are a high-octane space opera (Corey), a mostly fun urban fantasy (Butcher), a rip-roaring fantasy adventure novel (not unlike Indiana Jones; Kemp), a military SF novel (Bujold), and a fantasy epic (Gilman).  Understandably, I'm describing these somewhat unfairly.  They are more complicated than the simplistic generic traditions with which they are identified, but the ease with which they can fall into these categories presents a crucial problem:  they are not novels that will appeal to the widest range of people, generally speaking.  I stand by that.  Some of the folks who might start with these novels may find themselves less willing to try again.  Why?  The simple fact that these books aren't really for "non-genre" people; rather, they are more fairly aimed at those who may not read genre yet, but whose literary sensibilities lean toward the genre camp.  For that group, these novels will suck them in (I hope, that is).  For everyone else?  Flipping a coin.

Stevens' list presents different challenges.  His selections are actually more grounded than Paul's (this might have something to do with a tweet by Damien G. Walter that I have yet to see).  Rather than providing a nebulous intended audience, Stevens specifically identifies his audience as "those who are new to the genre." While this doesn't narrow the focus or define these new or incoming readers in terms of their previous reading interests, it does establish a better foundation.  With that perspective in mind, Stevens suggests the following:

  • Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm
  • Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
There are definitely some great authors here (I haven't read them all).  The problem?  In my experience, Robinson's Three Californias best fits among the (to use a pointless term) "literary crowd."  I taught The Gold Coast last year and discovered that it didn't sit well with students who came in with certain expectations of genre.  That doesn't mean The Wild Shore or any of the Three Californias novels are bad or unworthy of suggestion; rather, I say this in order to suggest that Three Californias deserves to be suggested under entirely different conditions:  namely, ones in which you have a far more specific understanding of what someone likes.  Compared to the other works on Steven's list, Robinson's stands out as the one most likely to appeal to audiences who don't have experience with generic traditions.  The Lindholm, Aaronovitch, Bujold, and Jemisin are all writers whose work, in my mind, will have greater effect on those who are already reading things that are similar enough to genre.  In that respect, they fit quite well into Steven's list, as they are works which are geared towards "new readers of genre."  

But, again, it all comes down to what we mean by "new readers."  What are they currently reading?  Who is a "new reader"?  Does someone who reads Salman Rushdie, Jane Rogers, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez qualify as a "new reader of genre"?  Or are we talking about people who have, for example, started reading genre because they saw Game of Thrones and wanted to read the books?  This distinction is crucial.  Even more crucial, however, are the additional distinctions (distinctions upon distinctions) -- there are fantasy readers, SF readers, SF/F readers, urban fantasy readers, readers who hate fantasy, readers who hate science fiction, readers who hate X, Y, or Z (or even Q).  The reader is everything when it comes to suggestions.  Are readers are naturally conservative (i.e., they don't like to try new things)?  Not necessarily.  What I'm concerned with here is the desire to suggest works to people who are not necessarily readers of genre and the frequency with which we allow our suggestions to be guided by our genre glasses.  I don't think that's effective.  A more effective method for suggestions would be to treat readers' interests as sacrosanct.  When trying to create lists like these, however, I think the best thing to do is try to narrow your intended audience as much as is reasonable and find ways to cross-pollinate that way.  I'm more likely to suggest Jane Rogers for readers who like George Orwell or Aldous Huxley than I am to suggest anyone on this list (excepting Robinson).  Why?  Because I want them to enjoy the book not because I enjoy it, but because it best fits the types of things they've already read.  And if you can show them that, hey, genre is good stuff, you've managed to open a gateway to genre that otherwise wasn't there (or was undeveloped).  And as we all know...once you get sucked into genre, you don't leave (unless you're Adam Callaway -- heh, teasing).

To be clear, I am not knocking Paul or Stevens for their efforts.  In fact, I quite like a number of the books on their lists and have suggested a handful of them to my mother, who is technically one of those "new readers" (until I'd made those suggestions, she'd only read Piers Anthony and William Horwood).  My criticisms are specifically with the trend within the genre community to treat people outside of our field as already partially inside.  Try flipping the tables.  Imagine someone who primarily reads epic fantasy receiving a suggestion to read Don DeLillo.  Maybe they'll love DeLillo's work.  But I wouldn't put my money on it.  Readers have specific tastes.  They like certain kinds of narratives, styles, characters, etc.  Sometimes these same readers are quite open to trying things that don't contain similar narratives/styles/characters to their preferred forms.  But these are all gambles.  The most effective way to suggest books for people is to understand what they already like.

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