Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Perils of Genrification

I am unashamedly a genre writer. The kind of book I write will always be sold and marketed as fantasy; as long as it is marketed, I've no reason to complain. My fantasy is all swords and very little sorcery, but I'm clearly part of a tradition that includes, for instance, Jack Vance's Lyonesse and Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.

This preamble is brought on by a post over at Joe Abercrombie's blog which taps into a wider internet discussion about the extent to which fantasy writers should also be fantasy readers. There is a view, by no means universal, that those writers who don't read the stuff: 1. can't write decent fantasy; 2. disrespect readers by riding in and thinking they can do it better than 'fanboys'.

Neither point strikes me as particularly convincing: Abercrombie is one of many who disprove the first; and disrespect only occurs when the writer dismisses the entire field as crap without having read much of it.


As a writer I would not describe myself as steeped in fantasy. In fact, I'm more likely to dislike a fantasy novel than almost any other genre (in the past couple of weeks I've put down a couple which have done nothing for me). There are of course many fantasy writers I love: the ubiquitous Vance, Abercrombie, George RR Martin, Iain M. Banks (even if Inversions isn't technically fantasy), Le Guin, Tolkien (even if only for past associations).

The point that the debate largely misses is that it's fighting the wrong battle. To write good fantasy it probably isn't essential to read good fantasy: what is essential is that they read good writers, regardless of genre. Fantasy writers whose models are solely from within the genre are unlikely to write the kind of book which will make general readers overcome their prejudice against fantastic fiction. And while there may be those in the fantasy community who revel in their literary pariah status, I'm not one of them... one thing that fantasy readers and writers should agree on is that good fantasy writing is good writing, period.

As the "Why Should I Read...?" list on the left shows, as writers we are all the sum of our reading experiences. If that's the case, don't we have the responsibility to give ourselves the kind of literary diet which won't bring on scurvy?


8 comments:

Matt Curran said...

Totally agree, Tim

In fact sometimes by reading too much fantasy you can lose what is refreshing about the genre: originality. After reading too much about orcs, trolls and elves as a kid, I turned my back on such things because there was a severe lack of originality as I saw it. Enter Clive Barker who twisted fantasy to such an extent that I was inspired to return to the genre years later with The Secret War after writing largely horrors or thrillers up until then.

I've also since returned to reading heroic fantasy and fantasy that does include orcs and trolls again - though it's still hardly a staple reading habit. For example for every Robert Jordan I've read this year, I've read a Cormac McCarthy.

Even though I cringe to say this, my English teacher was right: "Master Curran certainly needs to vary his reading to become a better writer..."

Tim Stretton said...

Matt, I had a similar English teacher. He always gave me top marks but once wrote at the bottom of one my pieces "I do wish you would occasionally apply your considerable talents to something other than science-fiction."

I'm not sure whether he'd view my subsequent migration to fantasy as following his advice...

Alis said...

I've always had the need to read widely across genres - a restricted diet of anything makes me sick of it after a while, however much I like it. And I'm sure it's helped my own writing. I've always been a believer in cross-fertilisation of ideas and one can always learn different techniques from writers in genres other that one's own. For instance many detective/crime fiction writers are masters of the unreliable narrator when they choose multiple pov and choose to put their villains in the driving seat first of all. In fact, I think I'm going to blog about that over on mine now!

David Isaak said...

Vonnegut once claimed that he didn't care what drawer they put his books in as long as critics didn't mistake the drawer for a urinal.

I suppose there are advantages to reading in your genre--for example, it may help you to know whether or not your idea has already been done to death.

But I think a good writer can take a done-to-death idea and make it work anyway, so I'm not so sure it really makes much difference.

(Truth-in-writing declaration: I don't read many thrillers. Heck, I didn't even set out to write one...)

David Isaak said...

PS. Re: Tolkein--

JRRT spawned so many imitators that it's hard to realize that orcs, trolls and elves as we conceive of them were created by Lord of the Rings. (It's interesting, in fact, to look at how the presentation of those three species changed from The Hobbit to LOTR.) Living in a world many years after LOTR makes it hard to realize that before Tolkein "elves" were often thought of as versions of garden fairies, and that "orc" was a word that occured once (without any explanation) in Beowulf and wasn't known elsewhere. Certainly until Tolkein no one had any idea what an orc was, even if they chanced upon the word.

I have a twenty-something friend who reads a lot of fantasy. He finally read Tolkein and was rather unimpressed--most of it seemed a bit old hat to him.

It's hard to explain to someone that this view is like saying Shakespeare uses too many cliche phrases.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I look forward to reading this post. You're absolutely right about crime writing techniques. The best crime writers--Minette Walters and James Ellroy are two contrasting examples--are such masters of narrative craft as to have something to teach writers in all fields.

David, as you suggest it's easy to forget that Tolkien essentially invented modern fantasy. It's unfair to blame him for the fact that so many of his successors have copied his faults as well as his strengths. Without Tolkien I doubt there would be a commercially distinct fantasy genre today.

Akasha Savage said...

(muted cough)
...dare I enter this little debate?
I live, dream, read and write dark fantasy. It is not all I read, I do read a wide variety of genres...but horror/dark fantasy is what I come back to time and time again. I have never felt overloaded by this mega intake, and when I started writing, it seemed the natural road for me to take.
I totally agree that good writing, is good writing, whatever it is about. I can read anything if it is written well and takes the reader on an interesting journey...if there's afew vampires or werewolves on the way, all the better!
;)

Tim Stretton said...

Akasha, it seems like you have the best of all worlds: steeped in your chosen genre, but read beyond it. That has to be a pretty sound foundation!