Tuesday, 15 July 2008

A rant about genre authors and genre reading

Something which has become increasingly common in recent years is the number of fantasy authors who, when asked what other genre writers they read/admire, give a reply along the lines of: "Oh, well...I don't really read fantasy, you see."

Take, as an example, fantasy author David Bilsborough. When asked whether he thought fantasy would ever be accepted by the mainstream, he replied:

"I don't see why it 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 phoney 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."

While I was surprised that Bilsborough was dumb enough to insult 75% of his potential readership with his embarrassing comments about American writers, what made my blood boil was the fact that he freely admitted not liking fantasy. Ok, he's referring specifically to Sword and Sorcery, but you get the impression that he's far from a fantasy fanboy. Why the hell does he write in the genre then?

The thing is, he's not the only author to happily write fantasy and then distance himself from the genre (yeah, Goodkind, I'm looking at you).

So why don't some fantasy authors read fantasy novels? Are they embarrassed to read fantasy (but not to write it)? Do they not have respect for the genre? Perhaps it's because after spending a day working on their own stories in their own worlds they don't want to then get lost in someone else's world, but I think that is just an excuse. I spend every free waking moment thinking about/working on my own project, and I still love to read fantasy on my daily commute.

I'm not the only person to notice this trend, as Steven Erikson recently mentioned it as well. When asked whether he thought his and Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan books were influencing new authors, Erikson bluntly replied:

"I'm not sure anything we're doing is influencing anyone. Abercrombie's stated he doesn't read fantasy. In my few conversations with Richard [Morgan] via email, he too was unfamiliar with the Malazan series. He told me he was taking "Deadhouse Gates" with him on vacation, and I haven't heard from him since."

Is it just me, or was Erikson having a bit of a dig at his fellow authors there for their lack of genre reading?

I'm not saying that those fantasy authors that choose not to read fantasy are at fault; at the end of the day we can all read what we want. It just seems strange that some authors are happy to write in the genre but choose not to read other genre works. After all, aspiring writers are always advised to read deeply in the genre (and without). Does this advice not apply to writers who are already published? I don't think that just because they are already published, they can simply ignore what else is going on in the genre.

What does really annoy me is when the likes of Bilsborough bleat about fantasy being a load of tripe that's not worthy of respect. How is he qualified to make a statement like this when he doesn't even read in the genre? I think he ought to read some Erikson and Martin, and then see whether he still thinks the genre is undeserving of respect.

Another point of interest is that the two greatest living epic fantasists (in my opinion) - Martin and Erikson - are both fully-fledged fantasy fanboys.


Anyway, rant over and opinions welcome.

By the way, if you want to subject yourself to Bilsborough's boring waffle, then check out the interview that Pat did with him here.

The Erikson quote came from the interview on Fantasy Book Critic.


RobB said...

Nice rant James and something with which I whole-heatedly agree.

Some authors have stated they don't read within the genre they write so they don't unconsciously mirror (in their own writing) something they've read.

James said...

Thanks Rob. I've also heard that reason mooted before. Perhaps it's a valid reason, but I just can't help but think that the best epic fantasists (Erikson, Martin, Jordan, etc) are the ones that fully embrace the genre.

By the way, I've edited the article since you commented so you might like to have a re-read as I make a few new points.

Plinydogg said...

I agree with you for the most part, but I do think it's fair to say that a lot of the fantasy being published today, as is the case with any genre, is crap.

I also sympathize with Bilsborough's dislike and disrespect for bad fantasies like Buffy.

However, I do think it is unfortunate when writers in the genre don't know their fellow writers' work.

Interesting rant. Thanks!

James said...

Yeah, I totally agree there is plenty of crap being published in the fantasy genre. However, there's also plenty of excellent material as well, so it's not really an excuse to say "Oh, I don't read fantasy because it's all crap." It's just not true.

Jeff C said...

Interesting rant, James. Good post.

It is weird that so many authors would not read within the genre. I understand them being worried about being influenced by ideas, but surely they can/should do a little reading, if only to keep up with the trends occuring in the genre.

You dont see music artists like Bruce Springsteen saying he doesnt listen to rock because he is worried about influences, or because he thinks most of rock music is crap.

Plinydogg said...

I agree James.

James said...

Jeff, very good point about the music side of things.

The thing is, it's really important to be aware of current trends and so on. Publishing is a business after all, and if you write a fantasy like the sort that was being churned out in the 70s/80s, then chances are it'll be rejected.

John Jarrold, the former editor-turned-agent, made the above point at Altfic on the publishing panel. He said you have to be aware of what is selling and so on. Ok, so he was referring to aspiring writers, but I think his words are equally relevant to published authors.

But ultimately, I just don't understand why some fantasy writers just don't seem to like fantasy. Do they really enjoy writing it?

Gabriele C. said...

I've never heard about Bilsborough and I don't think I want to hear any more about someone who disses the very S&S I write.

I for my part love to read Fantasy, and I'm not judging the genre by its crap (I've never heard a Thriller writer say he doesn't read other thrillers because of Dan Brown). Nor am I afraid I will copy other worlds - I can make up my own, thank you very much. If I copy anything, it's history. :)

Btw, David Eddings is another of those who say they don't read Fantasy because they don't want to copy others' ideas. Which may explain why he writes the same book over and over since 20 years. ;)

ThRiNiDiR said...

Blindman tried to read Bilsborough's book and put it away after a hundred pages or so - that's saying a lot since he is usually able to sit through the worst of them...

I think that the author profits from cross-genre reading and all that, but I have no clue how and author writes IN a genre and LOATHES it at the same time...the likes of Bilsborough/Goodkind should be made an example of, painfully :)

Dark Wolf said...

I can understand that some authors don't read the genre in which they write. I know that some fantasy novels are bad, but this case is not particular in fantasy, I think that all the genres have bad novels. What I cannot understand is how easily this "authors" can offend people. And wait, this is also an offence brought to their targeted readers.

What I understand now is that even though Bilsbourough thinks I read a lot of crap that shouldn't stop me to pick up his books. Is he crazy?

By the way, this made me not picking his novels up.

Rick Klaw said...

One thing that no one has mentioned is that after spending so much time immersed in a specific genre, an author often wants to spend time reading something completely different. I know when I am teaching a sf/f writing workshop or even attending a convention, I never read sf/f genre while there. I need a little break from it.

Not that it excuses Bilsborough's inane comments...

Robert Walker said...

This is an interesting issue. I read a lot of fantasy as a kid, and slowly shifted into science fiction and literary classics as I got older. After a while, I stopped reading fantasy. And in fact (and this was before GRRM exploded onto the scene) one of the motivations behind writing my current fantasy novel was that there just wasn't much ground-breaking fantasy out there. At least, not what I consider to be ground-breaking. So, I decided that if I couldn't find a fantasy I wanted to read, I would write it myself.

After I completed my novel (and when I'm writing, I don't read any fiction at all), I took a look at what's currently out there, and have been happy to see what I think is sort of a "fantasy resurgence" going on. Thus far, I have only read the first Scott Lynch (not at all worthy of the hype, imo) and the first book of Greg Keyes recent series (well-written, but, on the whole, not very unique). The one I'm looking forward to is The Name of the Wind. We'll see.

Personally, I find myself "influenced" by the great classics in literature, and, actually, what I would call "literature-quality" TV programs and films (when it comes to things like theme, structure, and writing technique. A good example would be Battlestar Galactica.). What I am not influenced by is other fantasy. Why? Partly because I simply do not find a lot of depth in many of the stories (when it comes to character and theme--"Dark," "Good vs Evil" and "the conflicted warrior" is not actually that deep, to me), and partly because I don't give a crap about the trends and what's currently "selling." I'm interested in writing timeless stories that can't be shoved into any trend box.

Bottom line, I don't think you need to read current fantasy to write it. But I do think it's utterly stupid to insult your target audience.

James said...

Gabriele: Eddings is a good example. He probably writes the same story over and over again because he doesn't realise that in many respects the genre has moved on.

Thrinidir: Yeah, the Bilsborough novel is meant to be complete crap. Blindman deserves a medal for getting 100 pages into it. Goodkind isn't much better though.

Dark Wolf: I don't think Bilsborough is crazy, just rather dumb in that he managed to potentially offend so many potential readers by talking a load of crap. His rant about the internet is hilarious, he really doesn't have a clue.

Rick: Fair point, perhaps sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. But some genre authors never read genre at all - ever - which just doesn't make sense to me.

Robert: Timeless stories are all very well, but publishers won't touch them if they aren't commercial enough. And unfortunately commercial means trends and what's 'hot.' Sure, you get the odd novel that doesn't fit it at all with the current scene and manages to do well, but they're few and far between.

For the record, I loved the first Lynch novel. Although I've not read The Name of the Wind, from what I've heard it doesn't sound innovative at all, but it does sound like a good read. Must get around to it...

Adrian Tchaikovsky said...

I've also heard the "never read any fantasy" line from fantasy writers. I always wondered if it was some kind of disclaimer to avoid accusations of plagiarism.

Books have antecedents. True, there are some fantasy books, rare and often brilliant, whose antecedents clearly lie elsewhere, and which have come to the genre by another path.

Just as clearly, though, there are books which sit soundly within a particular branch of the fantasy tradition, and if the author claims to have reinvented the wheel then one must wonder where he got the perfectly formed hub, spokes and rim from.

Robert Walker said...

"Robert: Timeless stories are all very well, but publishers won't touch them if they aren't commercial enough. And unfortunately commercial means trends and what's 'hot.' Sure, you get the odd novel that doesn't fit it at all with the current scene and manages to do well, but they're few and far between.

For the record, I loved the first Lynch novel. Although I've not read The Name of the Wind, from what I've heard it doesn't sound innovative at all, but it does sound like a good read. Must get around to it..."


Howdy, James. Trust me, I am aware of how the industry works. I guess what I'm saying is that when it comes to writers, there are those who chase trends to get published (or stay published, as the case may be) and those who write great books because they want to write great books. If getting published means chasing the winds of whatever the current trends are, then I guess I don't care that much about getting published right now. I would prefer to write what I think is good, remain patient, and let the cards fall as they may.

I'm kind of surprised that so many people loved the Lynch book. I didn't think it was bad, by any means. Just that it was so hyped as being so great, and I just wasn't very impressed. Just my take, of course.

I like your blog so far, btw. Added you to my "Recommended Links."

Have a good one!

James said...

Robert, I guess at the end of the day you should just write the story you want to write. Hell, that's what I'm doing. But it's just worth bearing in mind that if it is completely uncommercial then many publishers will probably reject it out of hand (although as I said, you do get the odd novel that doesn't really fit any trend that manages to do well).

Thanks for the link btw, much obliged.

Robert Walker said...

Yo, James. You're certainly right about that. My book is actually very commercial, though, imo. Meaning that I think it could appeal to a wide range of readers. While it is in the fantasy genre, it is more character-oriented as opposed to trying to invent some new kind of magical system, or that kind of thing. So, if it's anything, it's definitely not weird or "out there" in any way.

What's interesting, and used to frustrate me, but no longer, is that my book is being dismissed outright not because it's not commercial (because it certainly is), but because I'm a "new writer," without a publishing track record. Of course, it could be because they just don't like the book, but that's not why editors by books. They buy books they think will sell. Even if a book sucks, if it can sell, then you bet someone's going to publish it. Such is the industry...

Glad that you are writing what you want to write as well. Cheers to that!

James A. Ritchie said...

Well, Bilsborough did say he'd read a fair number of fantasy novels in his life. This seems fair enough, to me.

What I find silly is worrying about offending readers. Either you can tell the truth, or you can't, and the moment being honest puts anyone off, then to hell with them. Getting pisse doff because a writer doesn't read fantasy is childish, even if that writer writes fantasy.

Either a novel is worth reading or it isn't, and if it is, only a fool would not read it because of some statement the writer made. I hope most people are more intelligent than this, though little I see makes me believe this is true.

Trying to follow the work of other writers in the genre of your choice is, for the most part, a good thing, but, honestly, I, too, find about 98% of the fantasy out there to be derivative, poorly written crap, and damned if I'm going to read crap just to make someone else happy.

e. said...

what is genre anyways? theres no real strict limits to this, at least i found none so far. i read books because i like them, not because of any genre preference. and why shouldnt authors be allowed to do the same?
ok, if you want to live off this, you could be safer off just saying what people want to hear in order for them to buy your stuff, and keep yourself well updated on the current trends of how-to-build-a-novel-that-such-and-such-readers-will-buy so you add to your kit of working tools, but that kind of stuff is, for example, not what i read personally.
especially concerning creative work - why should you have to keep updated, if not for entirely commercial reasons?
and if an author acts against that, is that of any concern to you? look at the positive side - if youre to sell your book, you can make it exactly like you think its best, commercially. so why bother with the wealth or non-wealth of other authors? ;)