Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Book Report: Disrespect The Imagination At Your Own Peril

Apparently the BBC did a special about books. What people are reading, what they should be reading, etc... etc... except they forgot a little something. That little something being so-called "genre fiction" things like science fiction, fantasy, and horror, preferring to refer to anything other than high-brow "literary fiction" in a condescending, even insulting manner. This was quickly noticed and a large number of genre writers (technically called a "whoop of writers") signed a letter to protest this treatment, and will tonight sneak into the BBC cafeteria and loosen the caps on all the salt/pepper, and sugar dispensers.

But why did this happen in the first place?

It's because of a fundamental schism in the world of literature, publishing, and the people who live in that world. In that world genre fiction, or as I prefer to call it, "fiction of the imagination" is looked down upon as mere trivial commercial entertainment for the great unwashed at best, nonsensical garbage that's eating away at the fabric of culture at worst.

Garson Kanin is believed to have said that the problem with movies as an art was that it was a business, and the problem with it as a business was that it was an art.

It's the same with publishing, only with less efficiency, and even less in the field of business fundamentals.

A story that best illustrates this is one about Stephen King. At the time of the tale he was his publisher's biggest selling author, breaking sales records with each new book. However, when he'd go to their New York headquarters for a meeting with his editor, no one outside that editor even knew who he was.

The main reasons for that being that he was a lowly "genre" hack, and despite his sales, or maybe because of them, he wasn't considered a proper "literary celebrity" within the narrow Manhattan-centric publishing world. Because within that world it doesn't really matter if you're liked by the people of the world, if you are not liked by the "right people" you might as well not exist. If the company was run more like a Hollywood studio, he would have at least scored a lunch with the head honcho. Naturally, the cost of said lunch would be put in the ledger as part of the advance on his next book, but at least the existence of his success would be acknowledged.

Which brings me to the fundamental schism affecting publishing. The desire for "literary" critical and academic street cred has caused literary fiction to turn increasingly inward. Too many "literary" authors have lost the ambition of writing the "great American novel" that will capture a time and a place, and win the hearts and minds of the general public. Nowadays all they seem to want is to get enough critical and academic praise to win a spot on a university class's mandatory reading list and hope the students buy new instead of just picking up a copy somebody used the year before.

The critics and academics enable this, because many of them are part of the same tiny daisy chain, and most literary fiction has become pretentious chores and snores produced by boors for whores who want to be boors.

And the sad part is that winning over the high "literary" orthodoxy has become so damn easy. Take James Frey as an example. First he pissed off Oprah and readers with his bogus memoir/novel/scam, then he pissed off writers with his Full Fathom Five scheme where he offered to pay writers pennies for their work which he would then claim, for the most part, as his own.

He's basically a pariah, so what does he do?

He concocts a new novel that's guaranteed to woo back the literary elite that so recently scorned him. How does he do that? He does the literary version of the Madonna/Lady Gaga route and does something to offend Christians because they're the safest group to offend next to Amish. The worst they'll do is complain, but the odds of being beheaded, are pretty slim. He slaps together a book about the second coming of Jesus, makes him a promiscuous bisexual with a hooker girlfriend who has an abortion, making sure to hit all the right buttons, sit back, and watch the glowing reviews and the acceptance of his literary peers come gushing back.

Writing experimental and literary fiction used to be a struggle, it required imagination, perspiration, and more than plenty exasperation. A friend once asked James Joyce how the new novel was going, he said "I got six words done today." The friend replied: "That's progress." "Not really," answered James Joyce, "I have the words, but I don't know what order to put them in." Nowadays to be a literary celebrity you just have to pick a soft target that fits in with the prejudices and shibboleths of your peers, and let fly so you can get patted on the back for your "courage." There's no real effort involved anymore.

Naturally, they don't sell as well as they used to. The publishing companies, panic, and assume that it's not the writer's fault, it's the audience's fault. The audience must be stupid, and that's why they aren't buying, so they think that if the audience is stupid, then the publishers will give them stupid.

So you have publishers rushing to give book deals to everyone but writers. I'm talking about reality TV skanks, washed up actors who lost weight, and while some do sell, the most fail to make up for the immensely bloated advances the publishers dished out for them. When it comes to fiction, jumping on every fad like it's going to be the one and only thing for all time to where it comes to a point where one book is indistinguishable from another.

Meanwhile, people writing serious genre fiction, and
by that I mean people who write in genres to find new and original ways to explore ideas, imagination, and even socio-political issues tend to be forgotten as boring "mid-list" business. This forgets the one fundamental truth about genre fiction, it is the gateway drug of reading.

They attract people with their tales of adventure, mystery, exploration, or the fantastic, and the good writers get the readers interested in finding more good writing. Soon many expand into other genres, and some even dip their toe into the so-called mainstream "literary genre."

Sure, 90% of it is crap, but remember Sturgeon's Law, 90% of all human creative endeavor is crap, including a lot of the so-called "important" works currently clogging up university reading lists. The key is that the good 10% does more than just tell a story, they create a connection between writer and reader that gives the reader a hunger for more.

The BBC made a terrible mistake not using the opportunity to promote well done genre fiction. They had a shot to get people looking beyond the pot-boiler airport/shopping mall best-sellers, creating more readers buying not only more books, but a greater variety as well, but their own blindness and narrow minded condescension prevented them, and they blew it big time.


UPDATE: If you like to have "Viva The Genrevolution" on a T-shirt, then pop over to my Cafe Press shop and get all your Mother's Day, Father's Day, Halloween, Christmas, and birthday shopping done early.


  1. Furious D, you simply MUST put "Viva the Genrevolution" on a T shirt! (with a picture of someone hold a book)

    I've got like... 2 whole people that want one (counting me).

  2. Really?

    Hmmm... I'll see what I can do.