Friday, March 02, 2007

Novels with supernatural elements..

Just came across this article in Publishers Weekly. It's by Gwenda Bond and it was written back in 2006. I thought I'd excerpt a bit of it here, as it's of particular interest to me. You can check the whole thing out here, though, if you're interested. The subtitle was Harry Potter Meets the New Yorker...

Edward Kastenmeier, a senior editor at Pantheon, is quoted as saying, "Our culture is exploring the literary margins more than in the past. Exposure to fantastic elements and technology in our daily lives has made people more accepting of them in literature."

Really? I hope so, although being in a college setting at the moment I'm more aware of academics being disdainful of anything that even hints at genre. But academics are only a part of the picture, right? A rather small part at that. Okay, the article carries on...

The blurring of borders signals a return to a broader idea of literature. "Great writers have been incorporating fantasy, science fiction and horror in their fiction for a very long time," says Tina Pohlman, editorial director of Harcourt's Harvest imprint. But she concedes, "I realize that the contemporary literary world tends to equate literary fiction with narrative realism, so maybe there is something in the air..."

"It's more of an aberration," says Brockmeier, (that's Kevin Brockmeier, author of Grooves) "that those elements were stripped out of literary fiction in the first place. No one is rejecting realism, but there is a greater openness to accepting fantastic fiction as a form of literature."

Hurray for that!

A little later it says, Mirroring the rise of fantasy and science fiction in popular culture, literary stars like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem ascended to the top of their field. Both have long championed genre fiction. Along with such writers as Aimee Bender, Colson Whitehead and Haruki Murakami, these writers acknowledged their influences from mystery, comic books, science fiction and fantasy.

"It used to be that serious writers had to leave their childhood passions behind and that's no longer the case," says Kastenmeier. "Jonathan Lethem was embraced by both audiences and able to indulge his passions. In the past, writers needed to hide their genre interests more."

"...indulge his passions..." I like that.

Many of these writers admit they were sneaking over the fence as children. "I grew up reading mainstream literary fiction, but also fantasy and science fiction. As my own tastes matured, the first literary fiction writers I responded to were people who were playing with the fantastic, like Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez," says Brockmeier.

You know, this is something I think alot about. I really do feel that so, so many people became readers in the first place because of reading fantasy and sci-fi when they were young. That's certainly true in my case. So why not give these genres some credit for being gateways to appreciating literature? I'm not suggesting that all genre writing is good, but, duh, that's true of any genre - even the literary one. I do think it's a little small to disregard a genre as a whole instead of encouraging people to find good writing, to recognize it when they see it and know that it can be found in surprising places.

Okay, it also says, The readers who snapped up Sebold, Niffenegger and Clarke's books may have started as book buyers hungry for the next big title, but publishers hope some will develop a regular taste for fantasy. The amount of fantastical literary fiction hitting the market may signal that's already happening...

"Ordinary readers used to be afraid of fantasy," says Kastenmeier. "Writers like Susanna Clarke and books like The Time Traveler's Wife are making it easier to package fantasy subject matter for a literary audience. The audience isn't defining literary fiction as narrowly as it once did."

As an editor, Kastenmeier says he has to consider what people will pick up and read in public. "It used to be people wouldn't read genre books, there was a reticence of the mainstream audience, a feeling that it wasn't acceptable. But now it's okay to be seen reading these books on the subway..."

I had to think about that subway thing a bit. (That's a very urban-oriented comment, isn't it?) On one hand it seems silly to me that people should care what anybody else thinks about what they're reading, but on the other hand I can see the point. Maybe the issue isn't really so much worrying about a criticism of what they're reading. It's a concern that people will judge them based on what they - potentially uninformed - think a particularly title or genre signifies. That I can definitely see.

Puts into perspective why Doubleday worked so hard to come up with the cover they did for Acacia: The War with the Mein. It's a good one, and it looks as literary as the material inside it actually is - while also reflecting that it's an imaginative story. It's not, at least, a cover that I think anybody would be embarrased to read on the subway. If that helps the book find readers I'm all for it.

So, any thoughts?

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Blogger Scott Oden said...

Odd synchronicity, this. Blurring the genre lines has been in the forefront of my mind for quite some time -- though for me its the thin and elusive boundary between historical fiction and historical fantasy (as a prelude to moving into full-blown epic fantasy with an upcoming work).

The Lion of Cairo, my work-in-progress, is ostensibly set in Fatimid Egypt, circa 1167, but the only thing it has in common with the actual historical record is topography -- the Egyptian city of Cairo during the mid-12th century -- and a handful of names (Amalric of Jerusalem has a cameo, the Sultan of Damascus is Nur al-Din, that sort of thing). To further muddy the waters, the hero has a cursed knife and the villain is something of a sorceror (mesmerism and alchemy, for the most part -- Jim Jones with a twist of Sax Rohmer).

But, is it historical fiction? My heart says no; my gut straddles the line, and my editor is putting off saying for sure until he reads the manuscript. My mind should really be on writing the best book I possibly can, regardless of genre. Yet, I worry where it will fall, in the main due to marketing concerns: will I alienate my small (and hopefully growing) fan base? Will they follow me into the borderlands of my previous genre, or even into a new genre? Neuroses, I imagine, go hand in glove with writing . . .

Have you faced any sort of backlash from fans of Pride of Carthage, or do they seem more than happy to follow you into epic fantasy?

12:26 AM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

Scott, but does one of youc characters have a magic stone by chance? Because Kings and Rebels takes place during the same time, and there could have been more than three stones that survived the cataclysm of Atlantis. :)

I'll follow you, don't worry. I've always read the whole range from Historical Fiction proper to the historical Fantasy variants (Guy Gavriel Kay or Mists of Avalon) to the full fledged Epic Fantasy of a Tad Williams or GRR Martin. Some SciFi stuff, too.

As writer, I've recently crossed the border, too, after those magic stones crept into Kings and Rebels and added a Fantasy layer to a book until then plain historical fiction.

1:08 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


I agree with Gabriele. What you've described doesn't sound like enough of a departure to be a problem. I think your fans will happily move right along with you. It probably helps, really, that you're not working with famous historical characters. What will matter will be the setting - which should be very interesting - and then the quality of the story - which should also please.

I wonder what the novel will feel like - perhaps as your editor does, as well - but what you've described - a cursed knife and a bit of sorcery - doesn't need to necessarily cross out of realism. A great many real people have believed both in curses and in sorcery, yes?

As for Acacia and my earlier fans... Well, that's complicated. A lot of people thought that Pride of Carthage was a jump away from my earlier novels. Both Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness were set in 19th Century America. They got me a small - but quality - fan base. Not all of them followed me into the Punic Wars, but I picked up enough new readers to more than make up for that. With Acacia... I imagine I'll loose a few again, but I'm hoping to pick up rather a lot more. And quite a few readers have commented positively on liking that my areas of interest move around. At this point, I feel like I hear a lot people saying they're excited about the new direction, but the proof will come in the weeks, months and years after the 19th of June.

Part of why I think about this stuff so much is because I'm working within the academy. There are lots of MFA programs and MFA students that simply have no interest in anything genre, and not much interest in anything with much a narrative or plot, either. I struggle with that because I feel it's complete madness. Plot, imagination, the supernatural, coincidence, revenge, ambition, love and lust and drama... All these things have been fundamental for storytelling throughout human history. I don't understand why people who have come to maturity as readers reading books of great breadth and drama and historical sweep - think Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hugo, Tolstoy, for example - go to grad school and get convinced that they should exorcize all those things from their own work.

By no means am I suggesting that all books should be like this. Just the opposite. I love insightful, carefully crafted stories of all types, and can feel just as caught up in the quiet turmoil of an Anne Tyler novel as I can in bigscreen chaos. My point is simply that we - as readers hoping to be artists - should open our minds to learning from all possible sources. Too often, though, those teaching the next generation of writers ask their students to put on blinders, to exclude, exclude, exclude. That has, and does, seem very strange to me.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I read "Pride of Carthage"
(And made a blogpost )

Is it fiction or fantasy?

8:38 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Fantasy is fiction. But if you mean is it fantasy or historical fiction the answer is historical fiction, of course. No magic swords in Pride of Carthage. No elves or dwarves. No dragons...

It looks like you read the Swedish version, though, so I maybe they added a wizard or two... I don't think so, but...

1:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hannibal or not, he makes little or none difference today. So, why not stick to fantasy..

3:15 PM  

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