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Why are we so upset?

april 26, 2011

The people of fantasy and sf are upset. The BBC but also the world in general, it seems, lack proper respect for the genres of fantastic literature. Or at least the reading world, or the world that has opinions about books. We, who enjoy fantasy and sf and other so called ”popular fiction” (or ”genre fiction”), apparently feel ”put upon”. But why?

(And before anyone gets upset because I wonder why we are upset, at least read me out first.)

A fervent defence of ”genre fiction” was posted on the blog of SF-bokhandeln a few days back. It’s in Swedish, but the gist of their argument is in fact an attack against ”widespread and ingrained” delusions about the quality of the genres and the consequent depreciation of their readers. The writers, Karin Waller and Nene Ormes, took as their point of departure steampunk writer Stephen Hunt’s angry reaction to how the BBC had excluded sf and fantasy from their World Book Night programme. Sparks of indignation can be seen to fly from both texts, although Waller and Ormes add a liberal measure of self-irony, admitting that they are tilting at windmills. The comments to both texts bear witness to similar indignation being spread among the respective readerships (but on the whole, the Swedish commenters seem to take themselves and the whole issue less seriously).

This indignation matches the sentiments of an editorial written by fantasy and sf scholar Brian Attebery a couple of years back[1]. There, Attebery describes how a funding application was turned down, and one of the justifications simply said: ”More fantasy crap.” More resently (I mention this in an earlier blog post [in Swedish]), Steven Erikson voiced concerns that genre fantasy was ignored by fantasy scholars. It is even reflected in the oft-repeated question I get from journalists: ”As a fantasy scholar, how are you treated by other academics?”

The answer to that question is: ”With vaguely positive curiosity, mostly.” So far, only one of my colleagues has referred to my area of research as ”fantasy crap”. This is far less than I expected when I entered the field some ten or fifteen years back. I might encounter puzzled looks when I say ”fantasy” but never outright hostility. I have so far had no problem getting funding. In fact, there seems to be quite a lot of fantasy to be found in Swedish media. Dagens Nyheters several pages about the genre on the 24th of April this year is just the latest example. Rather than attacking the genre, it was written with enthusiasm. And unlike when I went to school, genre fiction is widely accepted by [Swedish] teachers (and many of them read specfic themselves).

So why are we so upset? I can understand scholars who are upset when their research topics are deemed unworthy of consideration by default, and I know that that happens. It shouldn’t and it’s a fight worth fighting. At the same time, I must point out that I have encountered far more interest in my research than many of my colleagues (who worked on more ”proper” topics). Fantasy scholarship certainly seems to capture the imagination of far more people than do many other kinds of literary scholarship.

I can understand writers who feel that their art is considered not good enough. We all want acceptance for what we do. But I don’t believe that their sales figures are going to suffer much for not being included in a BBC programme, nor for not being reviewed in the daily newspapers. There will still be readers waiting for the next [insert serial writer of your choice]. Or for the next [insert stand-alone writer of your choice]. Maybe their readership would have been much wider, had there not been these pre-conceived ideas of how ”bad” genre fiction is? Maybe. But maybe some people simply can’t read fantastic fiction. William Irwin, who considered that playful wit provided the basis for the impossibilities of fantasy, writes: ”Some intelligent readers are unable to meet the demands of a counterdemonstration of wit. If they read [fantasy] at all, they do so in a state of balking and annoyance.”[2]

But we, the readers, what annoys us? What makes us so irritated when our favourite genre is not included in a TV programme that we write things such as ”The way to [prevent literature from becoming a pleasure for a cultural elite only] is to find quality books that are also interesting to actual people. Not to PhDs of literature, not to critics, but to the average, bright, layman” (from a comment to Hunt’s blog post). I have to admit that this disappointed me. Not only am I, as a PhD of literature and a critic apparently not meant to enjoy fantasy – I am somehow set in a different category from the large majority of my friends (OK, there’s nothing average about them except – possibly – for their height, but still …). Many of us enjoy basically the same stuff as other people – and this is particularly true for the sf readership, who in my opinion is the most intelligent and discerning readership there is. We might enjoy it more, but that is surely not the point?

We don’t want to be referred to as less discerning readers, of course. So, very maturely, we refer to the others as less discerning, by calling them ”muggles”, or citing any number of authors who have explained how wrong non-specfic readers are. We try to defend our genres by explaining their many qualities (completely ignoring that 90 percent of sf and fantasy and horror is crud). Personally, I often ask myself, and others, what that fiction which is not ”popular fiction” should be called: unpopular? But aren’t we the tiniest bit touchy? After all, I don’t care when someone questions my taste in music, or food,[3] or clothes. Taste is individual. I even accept that people criticise my choice of OS. But seriously, we can’t defend entire genres, quite simply because much of it is crud. What we can do is defend individual authors and books, for what they are and what qualities they have. That shouldn’t be too hard, since there are loads of really good genre writers out there. We should also recall that reading fantastic fiction is difficult and requires training – the more you have read, the more you appreciate it.

Because the bottom line is this: our beloved genres don’t need saving – in fact, they’re doing fine. Instead, many readers seem more worried about saving their own pride . ”Respect my choice of reading matter; don’t sneer at it or extol the virtues of an arbitrary canon!” the battle cries echo. But I cannot help feeling that the cries ring out too loudly. Do we have to pick a fight because someone disagrees about taste? They have no power to keep us from our books, nor any power to keep fantastic fiction away from film scripts or the New York Times best-seller lists. Let’s rise above them. Rather than feel put upon, let’s ask anyone who criticises our taste in literature or our taste in clothes to discuss the merits of individual works or garments. Let’s explain what’s so brilliant about Gaiman or Straub or Ryman.

As long as their silly, preconceived ideas don’t stop us from anything important – like getting good grades, or funding, or entry into degree programmes, in which case, let them feel the heat of our resentment and let’s fight the fight.


[1] Attebery, Brian. ”‘More Fantasy Crap,’ or, Why We Fight”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 2008:3. 293-96.Tillbaka
[2] Irwin, W. R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana: U. of Illinois P., 1976. 27.Tillbaka
[3] And for the record, my crème caramel is better than my father’s.Tillbaka

2 kommentarer leave one →
  1. april 26, 2011 6:00 e m

    That’s an interesting post. I recently listened to an interview with China Miéville, who said something like ”We are right when saying these things [that sf/f is not crud by default], of course, but we _have_ been saying them again and again for forty years now”. He also added, however, that every now and then someone says something so rude that he just has to stand up against it. Perhaps we should all try to keep in mind that there is always the risk, when fighting for a cause, that you start loving the fight more than you love the cause (to parafrase Le guin).

    Anyway, I think of the now infamous statement by a Swedish publisher that ”if we had known that it is fantasy we never would have published it”. This statement contains two potentially upsetting parts:

    1) A publisher doesn’t want to publish any fantasy whatsoever, and

    2) a publisher doesn’t recognize fantasy when seeing it.

    Number two is vastly more upsetting to me than number one. Although in this particular case it was lucky, of course. 🙂

  2. Vix permalink
    april 27, 2011 7:57 e m

    Some of the best books I’ve ever read are fantasy. And some of the worst, too.

    As for the crème caramel – I volunteer as an impartial judge!

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