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Posts tagged ‘Gollancz’

Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?


So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

REVIEW: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis


Mockingbird by Walter Tevis Title: Mockingbird
Author: Walter Tevis
Pub Date: 1980 (original)
June 2007 (reprint)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Dystopia that can make you cry.

With Tor.com celebrating “dystopia week” not too long ago, I decided to read Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. Reprinted about four years ago in Gollancz’s fantastic SF Masterworks line, it had been sitting on one of my “to read” shelves for quite a while before I threw it into my travel bag for a business trip. I wasn’t reading it with an intent to review it: all I knew about the book was that it was supposed to be a classic dystopia that I’d never read. But the book had such an impact on me that I felt like I just had to share some of it with you.

The book opens with Bob Spofforth, a “Make Nine” android, enacting a private annual ritual: he tries to throw himself off of the top of the Empire State Building. But his programming prevents him from doing so. The narrative description in the the first chapter paints an utterly believable image of 25th century Manhattan: buildings still stand, buses still run (sort of). The city remains recognizably New York, but humanity has faded and turned inward. Skyscrapers line the streets like Mastodon bones bleached in the sun, and it is through the clinical, analytical description seen over the shoulder of Bob Spofforth that we get the sense of mankind receded, silent, and sad.

Through Spofforth, we learn that some time ago humanity came to believe in a principle of supreme privacy: that so much as talking to another person or looking them in the eye can impinge upon that privacy. Like soma in Huxley’s Brave New World, Tevis’ humans rely on drugs to help manage their moods and adjust their daily lifecycle. With machines to do everything for them, with indoctrinated cultural rules about privacy in force, humanity is rudderless, with no purpose, direction, or even concept of such. The robots are there to do it all for them. And since no humans remain who can repair the robots, the machinery that keeps society treading water is slowly breaking down.

Spofforth is a suicidal tyrant more human than many of the actual people we meet in the book. He knows that the species homo sapiens is dying out, with negative population growth. Into Spofforth’s Manhattan comes Paul Bentley. At first blush, the reader expects Paul to be a Promethean figure, having discovered a version of the Rosetta Stone (a film through which he could match words to a reading primer) and taught himself to read. Paul offers to teach others how to read, but instead Spofforth assigns him to do audio-recordings of the title cards in ancient silent films.

Paul is fundamentally a flawed hero. Despite his one act of initiative, he remains a product of his society: unwilling and unable to transcend the limits imposed by his value system. He does as instructed, despite niggling hints of rebellion in the back of his mind. Then, he meets Mary Lou: a dyed-in-the-wool rebel living in the city zoo who refuses to live by society’s neat rules. He introduces her to reading, and together the two of them re-discover the written word. It is this section of the book – perhaps the book’s first half – that reduced me to tears. Watching Paul and Mary Lou learn to read taps into everything wonderful about books, language, love, beauty, and what makes us human. Using the simple, limited vocabulary of a functional illiterate Tevis subtly broadens his characters’ horizons with masterful subtlety. Tevis suggests that our desire and ability to read are at the core of what makes us human, and that the moment we lose touch with the written word we risk fading into meaningless despondency.

The second half of the book remains solid, but I didn’t find it as emotionally powerful as the first. Shortly after Spofforth discovers Paul and Mary Lou’s exploration of reading, he has Paul arrested and sent to prison. In prison, Paul must develop the independence of spirit to break free and return to New York and Mary Lou. It would not be fair to say that the second half of the book is weak: it is not, and the final climax that resolves the fates of our three heroes (Paul, Mary Lou, and Spofforth) is particularly poignant. But despite the quality of the second half, it is the first which remains heart-wrenchingly perfect.

As I mentioned last week, I disagree with Jo Walton’s argument that dystopia isn’t science fiction. But Tevis’ Mockingbird does offer her POV some evidence. Looking at his career in total, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Walter Tevis a science fiction writer. Of his six novels, only two (Mockingbird and The Man Who Fell to Earth) can be called science fictional. The others (of which The Hustler and The Color of Money are probably the best known) are all mainstream literary works, several of which have been adapted into excellent movies.

However, Mockingbird does employ some of the techniques earlier put to work in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. Where Tevis departs from the earlier dystopian mode is to present his dystopia not as the consequence of people-who-know-better controlling the sheep. There is no “grand conspiracy” at work to keep mankind down. In fact, the only character who has the power to enforce such a conspiracy (Bob Spofforth) is as much a prisoner of the dystopia as our human heroes. This adds a dimension to Mockingbird which I find particularly interesting, as it places the blame on creating a dystopian world squarely on its creators: us.

Gollancz has consistently excelled with their SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series, and the actual physical product of Mockingbird is very well done. It sports an attractive cover by Dominic Harman which really sets the tone for the grim, dark world of 25th century Manhattan. And – much like Tevis’ book – it suggests that hope may be just around the corner.

On the whole, Mockingbird is hands-down the best dystopia I have read in a very long time. It provides an emotional and philosophical gut-punch that is difficult to rival. I think this is a must-read book for anyone who loves books, who loves reading, and who loves language. In the passages where Paul discovers new words and ways of looking at his life we can find all the truths of the world.

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