Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Literary Authors Hungrily Pursue SF/F Dollars

According to this article, a lot of literary authors are successfully trying their hands at genre fiction. Which is all well and good, but what if you don't want to read about zombies and werewolves and magicians? What if you want to read about the real world? What if you want to read a grown up novel? My current book is Graham Swift's Waterland. It's got no supernatural love interests, but it's really really good. I'll bet it's 1,000 times better than fucking Robopocalypse.

Also, this (from the WSJ article):

novels featuring robots, witches, zombies, werewolves and ghosts are blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art.

is not a true statement.


  1. My issue with this is that literary authors often have no clue what makes for a good genre novel, and the results are an awful mishmash.

    Then again, there was "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", one of my favorite books ever, so sometimes it can work.

    I'm curious, though -- what exactly constitutes a "grown up" novel?

  2. Here's the thing: most of the literary authors moving into SF/F are also writing in the YA category. YA is, by definition, not a grown up genre. But for the purposes of this post, "grown up" is whatever I say it is.

  3. Argh. I can't imagine why literary authors would want to write in a genre, any genre, that they haven't loved for a lifetime. I know I wouldn't read it.

    I also loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell but Susannah Clark has always loved fantasy, spent 10 years writing the book, and did a great deal of research for it. She did her homework and then some. There is a palpable passion for the material in her work and that's one of the reasons it was successful.

  4. I liked Susannah Clark's book, too, but I will be very sad if all my favorite authors take her as a model, because I don't like Susannah Clark's book more than I liked a whole lot of other books.

    I suspect that a lot of these "literary genre" books (or whatever) are not going to be particularly good and, as Alex says, won't be successful as genre fiction because what lit fic authors don't know about genre fiction is, in general, a whole lot.

  5. I started reading that article. I got as far as Humbert Humbert with fur and I had to stop reading. Now I want to scrub my brain.

  6. I think another thing to think about is how the whole "Supernatural SF/F" genre is pretty much played out at this point. It was mildly interesting a couple years ago, but after I laughed once while looking at the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I was pretty much over the whole thing. Several hundred novels, movies, and TV series later, they've pretty much strip-mined the "Vampire teenagers" and "Zombie (insert random thing here)" in every way imaginable, until even once-hardcore zombie fans are bored out of their skulls.

    So now all these legit authors are trying to re-imagine themselves as players in a genre that I can't imagine will sustain itself much longer... Twilight, World War Z and Harry Potter did their thing, made their insane amounts of money (without having much in the way of literary chops), and anyone trying to capitalize on that is just going to come off looking like a wannabe -- no matter how talented they are as writers.

  7. Alex: After some consideration, I have decided that what I meant by "grown up" is, basically, "stuff I like that I'd consider mature and serious literature." Which is entirely subjective, I know. There are books you'd consider "grown up" that I wouldn't, and likely vice versa. But it's all about me me me flapping my hands in alarm that literary writers are abandoning literatue and that, very likely, the perceived cultural and financial value of literary fiction will continue to drop. Seeing as I'm a lit fic author, my perception of this should come as no surprise to anyone.

  8. Thanks for clarifying that, Scott. Trust me, you are not the only reader who is alarmed at current publishing trends, whether in your favorite arena or others.

    Because I've got a mystery novel coming out next year, I joined the largest listserv dedicated to mysteries, which has a large population of authors on it. It's very active - 50-100 posts per day. I've been following it about two months now and am rather distressed by how much they champion e-books and e-readers and self-publishing. They all seem to think it's the best thing to hit publishing since Gutenberg. They review lots of books there, and often I'll see something that looks intriguing, only to discover that it is *only* available as an e-book. No thank you.

    So I am left wondering if I'll have mystery novels around as real books in real bookstores that I'll want to read. Nothing to do with literary authors churning out Robopopalytpic zombie books, but it's another avenue by which I fear the things I enjoy reading won't be around. Thus, I empathize, though the mystery genre is certainly not suffering the way literary fiction seems to be.

    I truly hope that literary zombies et al are a fad that die a quick death and unlike their subject matter, never return to the land of the living.

    I also hope you are feeling better!

  9. I think the trend toward ebooks and the trend toward genre fiction are separate. The obsession co-mingling literary works with speculative fiction is probably a passing fad. The replacement of paper books with ereaders, however, is probably irreversible.

    I really empathize with the author who felt required to switch genres, and I agree it's rather awful.

    On the other hand, I have to be honest: since I write sf/f, and I like money, I'm not going to cry croc tears over if sf/f is actually able to make money. I kinda hope that's true, not just hype.

    Sadly, I have this theory that, actually, it's not "real" sf/f that is most popular, but mainstream fiction with one or two elements of the supernatural. Life on another planet or in another world, with the complex worldbuilding that requires, is still not the most popular kind. Rather, the Twilight fantasy is what most people prefer: our world, but with sexy vampires. Easy on the brain.

    Then again, maybe that's just my own personal brand of snobbery. No reason to let lit writers monopolize it.

  10. I don't believe that genres have anything to do with the quality, maturity, or significance of the works within them. Most of the books I enjoy are either literary classics or YA fantasy, and while I've yet to find any YA book that rivals the works of Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, or Shakespeare, I've read several that I found more meaningful and intellectually stimulating than Jane Eyre (which I'm quite fond of, don't get me wrong) or a lot of contemporary literary fiction. I don't know much about adult fantasy because it's not what I've grown up with and there isn't much of an accepted canon in the subgenres I like. Sorry for rambling. Anyway, my point is, don't make assumptions based on the household-name bestsellers.

    I want to conclude with a quote from Charles De Lint, founding father of urban fantasy, that I think sums up what makes good YA:
    "I'd never considered that I was writing what might be considered YA stories. But it turns out Sharyn didn't want a book for teenagers, so much as one about them, and this I could most certainly deliver. The truth is, even if I'd been writing stories for teenagers, I would have approached them in the same way as I'd already written these: being true to the characters and their lives as they unfold, and telling their stories in the same way I write any story, rather than searching for a special 'teen' voice. The one rule of thumb in writing YA fiction is don't write down to a younger reader. Teenagers know when they're being written down to. I remember that I did."

  11. Anon: I guess I'm not sure what your point is. That there's nothing disturbing about contemporary literary writers give up writing the contemporary literature they supposedly believe in and value most to go write YA for money and that this won't reinforce the general perception that literary fiction has a shrinking place at the table and literary authors should simply accept that their work is worth less than genre fiction so why bother even writing it? Because that's the issue, not anyone's fondness for YA.

  12. I agree that the marginalization of literary fiction is a problem, I was just bothered by the bits that seemed to say fantasy can't be grown up or high art, and that YA can't be mature and serious.

  13. Well, fantasy can be grown up or high art, and YA can be mature and serious, but can we be honest and say that most of it isn't?