What’s more important to you?
My wife’s a cartoonist and she’s been creating a comic for the past 6 months. In that time she’s built up something of a fan base.* One thing she’s noticed is that her fans are less fans of her comic as a whole than fans of this or that character. It got us talking about what makes us like certain books. Whether it’s the genre/series itself, the character, or the writer.
Put another way, when you read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, what’s more important, the mystery or Sherlock Holmes? What about a Philip K. Dick novel?
There’s no right or wrong to this. I can think of two somewhat similar writers whose books I enjoy, Liz Hand and Kameron Hurley, both of whom write grim, violent stories. But I read Hurley’s Bel Dame series, for the series itself, then the characters, while the writer remains in the background. In the case of Liz Hand’s recent mystery novels I’m reading them more to see how this particular writer, Liz Hand, uses the mystery genre, yet while being less attracted to her messed-up “detective” character, Cass Neary.
And I don’t think it’s something you can maximize. Like if you blend all three effectively then you will write a blockbuster. But I wonder whether other folks have considered this. What do you think?
Do you read by genre, character, or writer?**
* When a complete stranger draws a picture of a character you’ve created, I’ll say you have developed a fandom.
** And yes, this questions skews towards popular genres. Though maybe not.
What remains remarkable to me is the genre’s continuing ability to remain stagnant and gleefully rooted in its past. We’ve had over half a century of revolutionary SF with a clear line of fiction and artwork going back to the 60s and earlier. Whether it’s Chip Delany, Ursula LeGuin, or Joanna Russ, the heritage is there for a genre informed by more than the utopian technocratic dreams it sold itself. But Feminism, the New Wave, cross-pollination from other genres, radical world politics or literary techniques… they all bounce off – or get uprooted and thrown away because those who’ve settled in and claimed “the core audience” status don’t want them there. The genre has a tendency to chew up those it deems to be intruders or unworthy of its “affection”* and spit them out.
I dearly hope to see this cycle end. Diversity, in all its meanings, should be a no-frills default feature and not some extra. Instead it’s gotten to the point where I’ll read a great genre book by a woman/minority/genre-outsider and wonder how long it will be before they get driven out.
A remarkable thing to see in the genre of “ideas”.
It is frustrating at times because one day you will be reading a book and thinking “This is great – This is the way to do it”, then two days later you’ll be reading another book and it’ll be doing the exact opposite thing, but you’ll think the exact same thing.
When faced with two opposite truths the issue is no longer to find the fault in one, but to decide between them. Which path will lead you to the place you want to go.
“Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” is my Joe Mitchell in Lankhmar story (mixed in with bits from my late aughties day job at an architectural preservation company).
Joe Mitchell was a 1940s New Yorker writer. That’s him over there on the left. He specialized in urban pieces about kooks and weirdos. Lankhmar’s a massive fantasy city created by Fritz Leiber. That’s it in the middle as drawn by Mike Mignola, the Hellboy guy. In the early 1970s Leiber published Our Lady of Darkness, there on the right. It wasn’t set in Lankhmar, but it featured a magic system called polisomancy. Polisomancy’s all about capturing urban elementals born from construction materials and was practiced by kooks and weirdos in cities.
My story’s about that.
I love the tradition but hate our adherence to them.
I love that authors have been working with the fantastic for so long that there are literally hundreds of years of material from around the world to get lost in. I love that every week I can potentially encounter a new author’s work. But I hate our desire to delineate genres and name epochs.
I hate tradition. I hate the collector scum, mylar bagging bull shit. (“Well, blah blah, American SF really starts with Hugo Gernsback.”) I’d rather no one walled the genres apart from each other. I’d rather find my own Golden Age than be stuck with someone else’s.
The Golden Age is the books you read when you were ten. The classics are any author writing before you were born. The walls can’t erode fast enough — and the more the pulp squad circles their wagons and closes their ranks around their andropause and incunabula the more I say good riddance.
Fandom doesn’t matter. The community doesn’t matter. Books matter. Reading matters. I fear we often forget this.
One could look at fandom as junkies on one side (“GRRM, I need my fix!”) and fetishists on the other. (“Oh my god! Sniff this book’s binding!”) What some marketing department decides to name Steampunk or what some editor calls the “new” Sword & Sorcery (when really it’s just recent sword and sorcery) or what some grad student writes about the “sense of wonder” doesn’t matter. They’re either tour guides or real estate agents who’ve positioned themselves between a reader and a book. At best they are useful in small doses.
This might be why I raise my eyebrows whenever I hear an SF writer say: “I love science fiction”. It smells too much of an abusive relationship loaded with codependency. I love to read, and I love books, and most of the books I love happen to be genre books, but I don’t love the genres.
The squishier and spongier they get, the happier I am.
I was sitting in a bar tonight reading Mary Renault’s novel, The King Must Die. It’s a pretty fun book, and while it’s a mundane, magic-free novel about Ancient Greece, its characters clearly believe they inhabit a “magical” world animated by gods and spirits. Theseus and his fellows believe in the whole Greek pantheon with greater conviction than one normally encounters in contemporary mainstream fantasy.
It got me thinking. A lot of fantasy seems to take its cues from the pulps. But I wonder if there’s a shadow history of epic fantasy that thrived in historical fiction and sidestepped the pulps.
Off the top of my head I’d place Renault, Mitchison, Flaubert, Dumas, Sabatini, Graves, and even Bashevis Singer (his novel King of the Fields in particular) in this shadow history. It’d certainly be a more amorphous tradition, one with more narrative complexity and more “Grandmothers and Godmothers” in it. It would likely lack a fandom trading the original magazines in mylar baggies. Maybe it’s the simplicity the pulps offered—the hero battling his way through insurmountable odds for a bit of wealth and/or maiden skin, all that sense of wonder and escapist derring-do, but I really wonder if this is just a narrative we’ve all been fed and swallowed. A heap of lies that says THIS IS THE GENRE’S HISTORY when really the genre’s true history is a lot more crusty and weird.