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Thread: Are we really writing fantasy?
February 27th, 2006, 08:34 AM #16
That's almost criminal. Siddhartha was quite a good book. I read him at a time in my life when his ideas were particularly appealing. I have not reread him since them and I should. I've been rereading much of what I remember so fondly from a long time ago, and now I read it so differently. But I do think of him as the layman's philosopher, and not at all in a derogatory way. His books were full of Nietzschean influences as well as Dostoyevsky, Spengler and Jung with a very westernized buddhist leaning. Demian, Steppenwolf, Narcissus und Goldmund were all fascinating books. The Glass Bead Game was more intricate and more esoteric, and a great read. That was his last novel I believe.
I'm surprised he's not being read much any longer. Is it the ideas that have fallen out of favor? Or is there just no interest any longer in that kind of personal exploration?
What I appreciated so much about him is that he did write interesting stories with fascinating characters, while still offering an intelligent and thoughtful, provocative, philosophical debate.
Any genre is capable of incorporating this kind of debate and yet most people don't expect it from Fantasy nor do they go to Fantasy to find it. The real question is do they resent it when it does raise its head? I don't think so, as the interest in Scott's books seems to demonstrate. I think that if this were the 60's Scott would probably be a cult classic by now much in the same way that Hesse was. I just wonder what the reader is looking for today with all these self-help books and how-to books dominating the charts. I know KatG that you will probably have all the stats to demonstrate that is not the case, but isn't it true that non-fiction is selling much more than fiction today? Is this something new or has it always been the case?
February 28th, 2006, 10:53 PM #17
Well sometimes your not complaining sounds like complaining.
Again, fantasy elements are not the problem. Many of our most cherished classic works are fantasy, numerous non-genre fantasy novels abound and often meet with literary acclaim. It's genre fantasy that is given the low culture label, and again, that's not because it has elves but because of its lowly origins, pop culture associations, largely young audience, and cheap paperback formats for the masses. Within the genre, there's further high/low culture claptrap. Forgotten Realms books and other tie-ins are considered low culture genre and the rest are high culture genre, with contemporary post-industrial fantasy being slightly higher than epic pre-industrial fantasy.
Which is why HarperCollins packaged Pratchett and Gaiman the way they did, indicating that their fans may be a lot of genre hooligans, but the authors themselves were not genre, that they are closer to Salman Rushdie than R.A. Salvatore. I'm torn between being proud of that and being very depressed by it as a marketing strategy.
I've been reading Douglas Adams' writings, as I mentioned, and one quote he had -- the idea of art kills creativity -- struck home. That mediums that are starting out and considered junk are where things get most creative. Maybe it's necessary for there to be the artificial high/low culture system in order for creative people (and youth,) to rebel against the establishment. Certainly, in history we see lots of those works we hold most dear originally being thought of as flash in the pan trash. SFF has had a long run as junk and as outcasts, thanks to its young audience, and that may have helped it, especially sf.
But if genre sff may still be seen as junk in many quarters, it's getting very hard for it to hold on to its outcast status. SFF is studied extensively in universities, it frequently pops up in high school curriculums, elementary school kids are saturated with kids fantasy. The commercial success of some authors, the film successes and renewed Hollywood interest. The explosion of kids fantasy, which since it is for kids and embraced by schools, is harder for pundits to label as low culture, has filed off some stigma. Literary writers are interested in fantasy and genre audiences and the literary jet set has taken up comics and genre sff as their culture of choice. So it will be interesting to see what the slow sea change has on the genre. So far, it's been a little scary.
February 28th, 2006, 11:16 PM #18Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
I don't, actually, have bevvies of stats on me, but yes, of course non-fiction has always sold more than fiction. NF is all about information, in all its forms except maybe humor, whereas fiction is all about subjective taste. Thus, different fiction titles only appeal to a much more narrow slice. And people always like to search for the magic key that will make their life perfect. That book I mentioned to you -- "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999" by Michael Korda -- can show you that back in the 1920's and whatnot, the same sort of self-help, diet, political book, memoir spread that we have today existed as bestsellers.
Actually, self-help had an interesting cycle. It was huge in the late 1970's and 1980's, and then had a big drop in sales overall in the 1990's. Now it's back up again, but there don't seem to be as many titles around. The market's moved more into memoirs and journalism/politics, though Mr. Frey may have stopped that in its tracks all by himself. Science history and pop science are big now too, which happens in cycles. They were also big in the early nineties. And don't rule out the self-help books for philosophy. Most of them are based on psychiatric techniques, which then took much of their material from various philosophical writings.
"Sidhartha" is still plenty around and studied in universities, etc. But the hippies are old now, Gary. What was beloved in our youth doesn't necessarily stay beloved. The next batch of people find their own groovy fiction touchstones. Doesn't mean that society is devolving. (Frankly, I found most of the book pretty boring, but I was forced to read it in school when I was fifteen.) Shakespeare is doing pretty well, but then he always seems to rebound.
We've got more people literate, getting some form of education and going to college than ever before. Not that they are all phenomenally bright or interested in literature, but in terms of mass numbers, more people have read classic works of fiction than probably ever in history. But that doesn't mean they have to celebrate every one of them. And they're still going to be interested in the latest diet book. At least, until we all die of plague and the planet gives out its last gasp of Artic ice vapor.
February 28th, 2006, 11:53 PM #19
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(Sorry for butting in. I find these forums increasingly interesting as I wander from place to place.)
Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
The books in my closest bookstore are classed by age range rather than by genre. The most it goes up to is fiction, and non-fiction; within the fiction you have children's books, YA and adult. Books are categorized alphabetically by authors' names, which means all genres are placed together. There is not much emphasis or expectation of particular genres as far as I know. (The things that end up on the "SFF" shelf are particularly out-of-place.) You just read.
Fantasies take place in a made-up world, as far as I'm concerned. A book asks questions and deals with human issues. It seems to me the genre doesn't matter as long as what you've written is a book and touched on something real.
I did start reading YA fantasy because I wanted to escape from the 'real world'. (Well, also because I was incredulous that people could make up a whole new world out of their heads.) But then I discovered the setting was the only difference. Even people in fantasy worlds had problems they couldn't always solve, but they dealt with them as best as they could, and that was the most important thing for me, I think. I would have liked the books less if the characters hadn't been as human as they were. 'Cause even though it's an imaginary world, it's the characters the reader gets attached to.
March 1st, 2006, 12:31 AM #20
Great art always has a vulgar base; that's where its energy comes from. Artists know that, even if critics don't necessarily; where would Beckett be, say, without music hall and variety? Dostoevsky wrote basically serial novels for popular newspapers. Shakespeare was (and in fact, still is) a popular writer, who wrote for the hoi polloi chucking orange pips in he pit as much as the aristocracy... And so on and so on. The divisions between high and popular art are never as clear as they are made to seem.
I must say, KatG, that one of the things that attracted me to writing SFF -apart from the fact that it's been a life long love - was its embarrassing status. It seemed a freer place to imagine. Detective novels, which have never been my bag anyway, are straight out respectable these days, postmodern icons. But as you say, sff is getting a respectable sheen. It will be interesting to see what happens.
March 1st, 2006, 09:44 AM #21
When I started writing, I didn't think at all what genre I wanted to write in. I closed my eyes and wrote what interested me. I was full of ideas and I didn't want to be restricted by the constraints of being logical. I spent years studying and teaching philosphy and I wanted to be free in my writing. I couldn't think of a freer genre.
But the genre is like clothing. It tells you little about the person beneath it, except for their artistic flair perhaps. People just tend to jump to conclusions. When you see someone on the street dressed in a certain way, you automatically assume things about them. Often your assumptions may turn out to be true, but not always. The person you saw wearing ripped jeans and a dirty tee shirt actually sold his dot.com for 50 million and the lady decked out in the Chanel suit bought it from the thrift store around the corner.
When I was teaching at the University, times were changing so rapidly. I came from a very different place than my students, and I was not much older than they were. I finished my masters when i was 22 and I was teaching philosophy to 18 year old freshman. I was a flower child, living in a communal situation with 6 dogs, two horses and a variety of other living creatures, grinding our own grains, growing our own vegetables etc. My students suddenly became pracitcal. The next wave, I suppose. They wanted to take courses that would help them in the future, but not culturally, rather stricly economically. I taught medical ethics to pre-med and pre-business majors. They took it because it was a requirement. I taught phenomenolgy to freshman and sophomores who never even heard the term before. It was very depressing. If I suggested Nietzsche, Heideger, Hegel, or even Hesse, Kesey or Kerouac they yawned and asked me if we could read Business Week. i'm not sure where college students go for intellectual stimulation today.
March 1st, 2006, 11:20 AM #22
Whitesilk -- could you provide the name and location of the bookstore? It would be much appreciated, thanks.
Gary -- it was the eighties. "Bright Lights, Big City." Reagan and trickle-down economics. MBA's making monster salaries, though they were soon to be trumped by computer geeks. You can't expect the college students to have stayed frozen for twenty years.
I believe that you have a college-age son, yes? Ask him what they're into. But here's what I can tell you so far, with the help of a professor husband. They watch less t.v. They're into the Internet and technology. They're still very interested in sex, but no more than past generations. They're concerned about the environment and have been innundated with environmental information throughout their schooling. They're very into politics, but not necessarily activism. They are still interested in racial and cultural issues, especially as they relate to politics and globalism.
They are also still into graphic novels, though a little less than a few years back, comics and sff, but they of course prize the noir stuff. They are more interested in indie-flicks than blow-em-up flicks. They still like satire and comedy, but only the new stuff. They are still very concerned with careers and finding it harder to earn big bucks. They still like ethnic writers, like in the 1990's, especially now from Africa. They are interested in fashion and fitness, and spend a lot of money on clothes and gadgets. They are very entrepreneurial.
Alison -- Absolutely. Once, the mysteries used to be so low class. Now it's quite a respectable trade.
March 1st, 2006, 11:50 AM #23
You are right on with that, KatG. My son goes to Fordham at Lincoln Center in NYC and he lives next to Lincoln Center. So he's part of a very artistic and creative student body and surrounding community. He loves indie films, indie music, art gallerys, museums, small music venues around the city etc.
He interns for a large P/R firm representing Hollywood producers, actors etc and he will be working for a major film producer this summer. He's seriously career oriented, but seriously interested in a career that he wants to pursue, not just anything. He's a very cool kid. We go to exhibits and music shows together, and we eat out often. He's always requesting hip, downtown places.
In school, he majors in media and communications and he ultimately wants to work in the video game or film industry. He's liberal, anti-Bush and anti-war, but not an activist. He's pro-environmental issues but again, not an activist.
March 1st, 2006, 08:44 PM #24
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March 2nd, 2006, 11:30 AM #25
That was totally cool. The company is called Page One. Big pretty bookstores! Sometimes I love globalization. Very helpful info, thanks whitesilk. Alison, definitely check it out, since they're (sort of) in your neck of the woods.
BTW, Gary, though it is not on topic at all, thanks for your post in the teenage writer thread in the Fantasy Forum. Very on target and nicely put. (I sneaked in for a look.)
I know that my market-centered stuff seems way too practical at times, but it does have a very big impact on how people perceive sff writings of various types and it does effect things for sff writers. For instance, I would be very interested to know what NightShade, the small press flavor of the moment, is doing outside the genre market and what's been the results of that. Because if they are doing non-genre, literary hook-ups -- which is very possible through the horror channel -- and they're getting interest in the proper quarters, it could cause ripples. Maybe I'll do a swirl around their website again.
March 2nd, 2006, 12:44 PM #26
My pleasure KatG. Thanks for the thanks.
I'm really surprised sometimes about Nightshade. They are a very small company and they have generated a huge amount of buzz in a short amount of time. PW reviews their titles, Cheryl M jumps on their releases and at the cons they are tres cool. So how come? How did this happen so quickly? I can't tell you if they are branching out or not. I'm just curious about their formula. I can tell you that the owners are particularly nice people. At least they certainly seem to be. Pyr I can understand better. They are funded by a larger house. This genre is so incestuous. It seems that if you are genre specific, your prospects are enhanced. There are so many fantasy authors searching for credible publishers.
And, back on topic, no matter how many times I may say that fantasy is more expansive in thought than it appears to the average non-fantasy reader (and often the regular fantasy reader) since I write within a traditional framework, my books are categorized immediately. And being labeled traditional today is the kiss of death when it comes to a house like Nightshade!
March 3rd, 2006, 10:57 AM #27
Nightshade is in because it's doing dark fantasy, horror and "experimental" stuff, all of which has cycled back in fashion. A lot of that material is contemporary, post-industrial, whereas what you are doing is pre-industrial. There's always some innate prejudice against Pre-Indie fantasy, since it's close to fairy tales, Tolkein and S&S -- traditional, as you say. Not that Nightshade isn't doing any pre-indie fantasy, but since your Gem novels are already printed, they probably wouldn't jump. But if you have a new project, they might. But works that give them literary cachet -- that are quasi-genre -- are probably what they are concentrating on.
They were the ones who published Jeff Vandermeer and K.J. Bishop, right? It would also then not hurt them that both of those authors, Bishop being internationally based in Australia to boot, got reprint deals at Bantam Spectra. For a small house, your authors attracting deals with the bigger houses is a clear sign that your house is hot. Either they'll build themselves up like Baen, or in a few years down the road, they'll strike up an associative deal or get outright bought by a larger sff house, likely. I would also not be surprised to hear that they've built up very good relationships with the booksellers. If you can get the booksellers to trust you, they'll start hand-selling your titles, which helps a lot. (Remember, most marketing that a publisher does is to or for booksellers, not customers.)
Having a wide range of options for sff writers has never been very easy to do because it doesn't sell well enough on a regional basis, and small presses rely on regional sales. To succeed as a sff small press, you have to be able to do national business, and in the U.S., being able to get to Canada and the U.K. doesn't hurt. But that's very hard for a small press to do, even with the Web. Up until recently, it wasn't that feasible. But the popularity of the genres has helped, and other small presses that might have only done contemporary or mystery fiction, may now also take a flyer on fantasy fiction too. There's definitely an increase of non-genre fantasy going on.
If you wanted to, Gary, you could try and go outside the genre, to a mainstream press, publish as non-genre, and work the literary attention outlets instead of genre ones. But since you're starting to make a dent in the genre audience, you might just want to stay here despite the "label."
March 3rd, 2006, 11:13 AM #28
I'm going to stay right where I am. I'd be lost in the general lit market. Whether or not some of us are writing things that might or could appeal to readers of other types of literature, I am a fantasy author. My world is made up, fantastical, my characters are not the types you find living next door to you and they can do things that we cannot. Is it the tropes that define the genre then, not the ideas? I suppose. So am I really writing fantasy? Yes, in that respect.
By the way, next month's issue of PW will have an article on Sci Fi and Fantasy, which one is selling more and why. I am interested to read what the industry has to say about this.
March 3rd, 2006, 01:27 PM #29
I was full of ideas and I didn't want to be restricted by the constraints of being logical.
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It was very depressing. If I suggested Nietzsche, Heideger, Hegel, or even Hesse, Kesey or Kerouac they yawned and asked me if we could read Business Week. i'm not sure where college students go for intellectual stimulation today.
Is it the tropes that define the genre then, not the ideas? I suppose.
March 3rd, 2006, 02:02 PM #30
When I said logical Prunes, I meant in reference to logical possibilities, like sentient trees and magic, not in my thought structure. Sorry for being so unclear.
I am glad to hear that younger people are starting to think again about things that might not be totally practical.