Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where Have All the Genre Authors Gone?

Last Thursday here in Toronto the Toronto Public Library Foundation had their annual fundraising gala The Book Lover's Ball. It's a rather posh event that usually features a fashion show, a banquet, and an auction. And it's a truly lovely idea considering books seriously need some love, especially these days.

But I noticed something odd about this year's author invitation list, and as I investigated further, I felt a need to write about it. Please understand that I am in no way condemning anyone in particular with this post, and that I fully admit to not knowing the reasons behind any decisions and could very easily be wrong. My conclusions are drawn from observation, not from any conversations with any insiders or anything. I'm hardly an investigative reporter.

I'm a children's book author with probably a few too many opinions than is good for her.

I also think it is very important for The Book Lover's Ball to exist, and I understand they need to invite people to their event who will draw in sponsors and donations. I get that. I do.

So. With that caveat.

Out of the 54 invited authors this year, two can be said to be writers of SF/Fantasy, and both of those were for children. Not a single adult genre writer was invited. The closest I suppose to genre it got were a couple thriller authors. But true adult SF/Fantasy authors? Not. A. One.

This really struck a chord with me. And I'll tell you why. There has been in general, a feeling that SF/Fantasy books are somehow considered less worthy writing than other kinds. Here's an excerpt from a very interesting article specifically relating to SF books:

Considered by the literary establishment, and frequently by non SF award-giving institutions, to be trashy, pulpish, commercially driven lightweight gutter fiction (only a slight exaggeration, believe me), it’s no surprise that very few works of science fiction have won major literary awards. Recent notable exceptions include Cormac McCarthy winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Road (arguably science fiction), and Ray Bradbury receiving a special citation from the Pulitzer Board in the same year. On the whole though, the accolades are few and far between.

In an article about the death of science fiction author J.G. Ballard in the New York Times (April 21, 2009), Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil, said “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984

Apart from demonstrating that Robert Weil is amazingly silly, this quote highlights the problem: if you’re a famous writer in the literary world who writes a science fiction novel - and Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 are clearly science fiction works - then you’re not writing science fiction as far as publishers and the literary establishment are concerned. Great literature can never be science fiction. When established “great” authors are writing it, it’s something else entirely. No wonder science fiction is always viewed as second rate. Anything good or even above average is simply reclassified.

It isn't just the amorphous "establishment" that makes the above reclassifications, but well known authors themselves, who have dabbled in genre, have also famously denied that their work is such as if that is the ultimate insult.

Anyway. Back to the ball.

I did a very very unscientific test and looked at the lists of author invitees for the last three years that is up on their website. It's pretty clear something odd happened this year.

We begin with exhibit A: Robert J Sawyer. He arguably is THE top SF writer in the country and just this year got probably the biggest demonstration of recognition of his awesomeness - his book FlashForward was turned into a television series (you know you've made it when Hollywood takes notice - and Joseph Fiennes (yum) is your leading man). From what I can see on The Book Lover's Ball website, he was invited the previous two years. But not this year. What's changed exactly? Certainly not a lack of recognition nor a lack of books being published. Guy Gavriel Kay, again, arguably the premiere Fantasy author we have, the exact same thing: two years of invites, not again this year.

Don't tell me the inviting committee was getting bored with these authors and wanted to shake things up. I noted other authors who appeared on those previous years' invites lists, and were invited this year too.

I don't know whether something happened this year, whether this is just a coincidence that isn't worthy of me spending time blogging about it (and I really hope it is), but when you spend your time in a genre that has to fight so consistently to be recognised, you do tend to take note of situations like these.

Side note: I talk about SF/Fantasy as being not very well respected in the literary community. But don't even get me started on the poor maligned Romance category. Which, though I know little about, I do know gets even less respect than SF/Fantasy. What's even more deeply disturbing is that Harlequin has got to be one of the most successful Canadian enterprises internationally, and still evidently the books they produce aren't worthy of being included in a celebration like this.

Now I'm sure there are some of you who are shaking your heads and thinking, "Adrienne, come on, would you have written about this had you been invited? You're probably just bitter is all."

Well yes and no. I'm certainly not bitter. However, I might not have written this post had I been invited (though had I been invited that would have helped with my issue in the first place, my presence would have helped make up for the lack of genre authors). But I would not have written this blog post simply to whine about my lack of invitation. We all know I don't do that sort of thing. Nor am I at all the kind of author who thinks she deserves to be invited to every event (though, I mean, who wouldn't want me at their event, I'd be fabulous darling! ;) ).

My lack of invitation made me curious to see who had been invited. And it was upon investigating this, that I realised something wonky had happened to the genre fiction authors. And that was the reason I wrote this blog. Had something wonky not had happened to the genre fiction authors, I wouldn't have felt a need to say anything. After all, I wasn't invited last year either, did you hear a peep out of me then?

I do realise that such an event is a tricky one to organise, and that not every Canadian author can be invited. I also realise we have some amazing authors who are staples in this country and who really do deserve to have an open invitation. I can appreciate a star system as much as the next person. But this lack of genre writers really does make me cock my head to the side and go, "Huh?"

I guess what I'm trying to say is, for an event called The Book Lover's Ball, it'd be nice to see all books loved and celebrated. As they have been at past galas. Something happened this year, and it should be noted. That's all.


Doug A Scott said...

It isn't just the amorphous "establishment" that makes the above reclassifications, but well known authors themselves, who have dabbled in genre, have also famously denied that their work is such as if that is the ultimate insult.

And what's even worse than that is writers who have produced SF as the huge bulk of their work and still refuse to call themselves genre writers. Yes, I'm looking at you, Harlan Ellison. Self-important jerk.

Outstanding post, Adrienne.

Jamie Eyberg said...

Well said, Adrienne.

I consider myself a genre writer, mostly horror but I have delved into science fiction and fantasy. I even write for children. I am of the opinion that good writing is good no matter what the subject matter or the audience it is directed at. We (writers for publication) are a pretty small group already, no need to cannibalize each other over what we think is great or worthwhile.

Dolly said...

I have both literary and genre novels in WIP. But when I decided to keep my focus on one, I chose fantasy over literary without hesitation, because that's my passion.

I think it is a shame that genre novels are excluded or looked down upon when it is quite evident that more readers read genre than literary, thriller and romance probably at the top.

I love literary books too, but I don't think they by their definition alone are any better than genre novels which focus on the story and pace more.

I am glad you did this post. Still being at revision stages myself, I have not felt the pain that published genre writers might feel after all the hard work they have put in, so it's good to be aware of such issues.

Christi Goddard said...

I've noticed something as well as I try to find representation for my urban fantasy novel: there's a small number of agents that represent fantasy. There's 1200 agents, but only 107 accepting queries for sci fi/fantasy. Of those, when I go to their websites, MOST of what they represent is romance or general fiction. It's very hard these days to submit fantasy as many agents have it in their heads we fantasy writers are trying to be the next Rowling or Meyer.

Mary Rajotte said...

This made me think of various writing courses in Toronto not offering some genre fictions in their curriculum (namely Horror, though I do see SF/Fantasy & Thriller). Maybe it's a lack of interest, but if they don't offer it to begin with, how can those of us who are interested show that genre fiction matters to us?

Unknown said...

Well put, Adrienne.
There is no doubt in my mind that SF/Fantasy is considered muck in the literary community.
Having been raised on the stuff and loving it into adulthood, I am often a bit miffed that the snobbery abounds.
It takes no less imagination, command of verse or tenacity to write a genre book than it does a great piece of "literature". There are several books that I can think of off the top of my head that are brilliant pieces of literature, though they belong to a sub-genre. Does anybody remember a small, high fantasy title called The Lord of the Rings? Trite fluff, you say? Tolkein spent the better part of his life creating a LANGUAGE, for crying out loud. How many literary authors can say that?
Now, I'm not dogging literature. I read that too. I'm dogging the attitude that genre writing is somehow less than.
I am reminded of the art world, where quilting isn't considered art. It belongs in county fairs or in quaint B&Bs that great literary authors go to when getting away from New York. It takes every bit as much insight into perspective, color and light to build a quilt as it does to make a painting.
Its also like saying that if a band makes it big, they don't make good music. Huh? The Beatles? Stevie Wonder? Frank Sinatra? Prince?
I have a feeling I am preaching to the choir on this, but I loved your blog and I hope, at the very least, you had fun dressing up.

Anonymous said...

And yet, still, the redheaded stepchild of all genre fiction is horror. Real horror. Not what they call urban fantasy.

Patti said...

That's an interesting way to put. SF/F books that are good are just reclassified. I never thought about it that way.

Great post and well said on behalf of all us genre writers.

Robyn said...

You know, I remember coming across some marketing lit about the event, and thinking to myself, "I guess TO just doesn't have that many genre authors." But I remember thinking that for Word on the Street last fall, too. It's suspicious, or something, because I'm starting to think that's not true...