On Genre Diversity (Or, Why Mark Charan Newton Was Right)

Recently, Mark Charan Newton, author of Nights of Villjamur, as he’s wont to do, stirred some feathers when he challenged several bloggers to diversify their book coverage, to shift focus from all the frontlist new releases and give more coverage to the wonderful backlist of the genre. Long story short, the blogosphere can only handle so many reviews of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson and The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. Authors and novels of high profile get a huge push from their publishers, and that results in coverage from every blogger under the sun; Newton argues that it would do everyone (reader, author and reviewer alike) some good to look into the past.

Myself and Larry Nolen, from OF Blog of the Fallen, disagreed with Newton, at least in part. We agreed with Newton that diversification is a good thing, but that true diversification means so much more than just dipping your toe into the forgotten classics of the genre; rather, it’s about stepping outside the boundaries of the frontlist books (you know, those ones that are shoved down your throat through blogs, twitter, Facebook, newsletters, bookstore promotions and heft marketing budgets) and explore what else the genre has to offer, regardless of whether it was released today, a month ago or before the Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup (1969, for all you non-Hockey fans reading this). The Speculative Fiction genre has so much to offer that you could pick books out at random and never run out of good reading (granted, there’s an equal share of bad reading in there, but it’s good to experience that from time to time, to keep perspective), so why are we bloggers and reviewers often obsessed with keeping up with the times?

Of course, discussions on the ethics of bloggers are boring. But this call for diversification is something all readers might consider, whether they end up taking Newton’s advice or not.


Growing up, I was a big fan of what I now think of as Bubblegum Fantasy. I devoured Terry Brooks; I couldn’t get enough of R.A. Salvatore; Tolkien opened my eyes to Fantasy; and Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan convinced me that an 800 page novel was nothing to be afraid of. I read it exclusively, to the detriment of every non-genre book in existence. I’d find a new author and burn through their library as quick as I could (which was fast, being a high school student with too much time on his hands.) Each author was more or less the same as the last, but they all brought their own touch to those familiar stories. It was an exciting time for me. I was exploring worlds I never dreamed could exist. But, over time, that euphoria became more difficult to capture. What was once exciting was now banal, predictable. Still, I jumped from one big Epic Fantasy series to the next, always trying to recapture what I felt from my youth. Blaming the authors for writing tripe, but never thinking to consider that the fault may be my own.

It took a long time before I figured out what the problem was. The Internet offers readers a chance to join a community unlike any that’s existed before. At our fingertips is access to literally thousands upon thousands of other fans, each as passionate and knowledgeable about the genre as you could ever hope for. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, my friends and I pulled novels from the same pool. There was no real diversity to our tastes; no one to shove new books in my face and say, “Dude, you have got to read this.”; no one to challenge me to expand my horizons.

Enter the Internet. Now, despite being relatively young, I’m going to sound like an old codger for a moment, but hear me out. When I was growing up, and discovering the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, the Internet barely existed. Sure, I could download DOOM demos over my 28.8k modem, or squint through pages of ASCII porn, but there was little community to it; certainly there was no blogosphere, no forums filled with thousands of people (BBSs existed, of course, but they were hardly the font of activity equivalent to today’s message boards), nor were there twitter blasts, Facebook fan pages or easily accessible reviews. Word of mouth ruled the day, and that limited my scope. When I started blogging, I entered the Internet community full force, and all off a sudden I was introduced to this vast collection of people with an incredible diversity of opinion and taste. It was like the doors were blown from my little cabin in the woods and all of a sudden I found myself in the middle of London, a whole strange world opened up to me. Immediately my tastes began to expand. I started straying away from my comfort zones, from those authors who were immediately familiar to me, and slowly I found my excitement for the genre begin to grow again. By expanding the reach of my literary arm, I began to recapture that sense of wonder that my jaded self had forgotten. Instead of re-reading a Terry Brooks novel, I’d go out and find something new, a novel that would place me in a world or a situation that was unfamiliar to me, that forced me to learn a new set of rules.

As I’ve blogged, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to expand my reading. Of course, my first true love will always remain with Epic Fantasy, but meeting those people on message boards, and Twitter, blogs and Facebook, has opened my eyes to the idea that I like to try new things. Do I always review the novels that I read? No, sometimes I tackle them as a reader and a writer, somebody who wants to enjoy a novel without a critical eye, to learn from it and gain insight into the history of the genre. To take a snapshot example, my last six reads have been:

  • Mark Newton’s City of Ruin, a novel touched by everything from the New Weird to Science Fiction, social allegory to Epic Fantasy
  • A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham, a poetic, politically charged Fantasy set in a vaguely Oriental setting. There are so many wonderfully executed ideas in this series that I don’t even know where to begin when singing its praises
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a classic of the genre, a beautiful tale often obscured by the YA label applied to it
  • M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, a startlingly prescient blend of Science Fiction, Adventure and Fantasy whose echo is still felt among those front-list titles
  • The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia, the haunting tale of a mechanical girl trying to figure out what it means to be human

Might not touch the reading lists of other Internet pundits, perhaps, and is still confined to just one corner of Speculative Fiction, but I feel it’s a nice, wide-ranging look at the different strengths of my favourite genre.

This diversification is good, right?

Well, apparently not for everybody. I was startled recently when I read this review of Terry Brooks’ Bearers of the Black Staff, and most particularly by this quote:

When it comes to fantasy, I want to read about badasses with big swords and magical powers punching and zapping each other. There is some of that in Bearers of the Black Staff, but not enough for my taste.

Now, of course, every reader is entitled to their tastes and opinions, but it made me, well… sad to see someone be so dismissive of what I think are the ultimate strengths of the genre. Sure, I like magical powers, big swords and badasses in some of my fiction, too; but, I also love works like Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which feature none of those things but showcase some of the best that Fantasy has to offer.

But, maybe that’s okay. Ultimately, we all read because it brings us pleasure, it helps fill the quiet moments in our day, whisks us away to some other world. I was comfortable in my tropes, but ultimately found myself constricted by them. Comfort was confused for contentment. Luckily I discovered this soon enough to recover from the doldrums.

Whether you’re the type who’ll read whatever catches your eye in the grocery store line-up, or you order obscure translations of Serbian literature from dodgy used bookstores in Manhattan, it’s important to always remember how reading captured your excitement in the first place. The next time someone shoves a book in your face and says, “Dude, you have got to read this!”, don’t shake your head and say, “Ahh, no, doesn’t look like something I’d like.” Instead, give it a shot. You might just find you like it. A lot.

13 thoughts on “On Genre Diversity (Or, Why Mark Charan Newton Was Right)”

  1. Agreed; diversity in both the depths and breadth of the genre is a fabulous idea.  It would be great to see more review and genre sites reflect this idea.

    Your example of a reviewer who does not embrace diversity seems a little extreme; I’m curious if this concern is something that we can track not just through reviewers who like badasses, but through sites that have a less strident take on the works, yet still seem stuck in a very small corner of fantastika.

  2. Completely agree with you. A diversity within any genre of literature allows the author and audience to explore new possibilities, new connections, thoughts, conclusions and ultimately will push for a better understanding of whatever you’re trying to tell. 

     

  3. I’m not quite sure how you can be a bookblogger and avoid getting caught up in a more diverse reading pattern. I currently have works science fiction, historical fiction and fantasy on the front page, with publication dates ranging from 1953 to 2010. I’d be bored to tears if I had to read only big fantasy releases.

  4. Down with diversity… I want David Eddings using marcos to write every fantasy novel!

    Seriously I doubt anyone is going to argue against diversity or that every author should create a mould that they just add in new character and place names in to churn out identikit novels (as it seems some of the once greats of genre now do…. Yes I am looking at you Eddings and Feist, and i know you have a letter from your mum Pratchett).

    When it comes to the blogs and the rest I think we need to try looking beyond the mass marketing push of the publishing houses, because they are more interested in raking in the easy money from formulas with a track record than looking for the next big thing, let alone serving the needs of those quiet little authors scribbling away re-inventing the wheels in tried and tested ‘old’ genres that are no longer cool or edgy.

  5. Y’know, this might be a crazy idea, but maybe — just maybe — diversity might imply reading something different once in a while. Not just slightly-older same-old-stuff, or very-slightly-different same-old-stuff, but books that come from entirely different sections of the store/library! Maybe thrillers, or romances, or family sagas — or even…even the dreaded non-fiction!

     

    I know, I know — it’s a crazy dream. Forget I said anything.

  6. Bookstores have sections other than SF/F? Weird.

    ;)

    Obviously there’s an endless ocean of literature out there, fiction and non-fiction, but, since SF Signal is a SF/F-based website, I thought it made more sense to focus on the breadth of the SF genre, rather than get totally overboard by including the kitchen sink. Of particular interest to SFF fans, perhaps, would be real-world history. You think the politics and warfare in Fantasy novels is interesting? The real world trumps it by far.

  7. Isn’t a lot of science fiction and fantasy that is written heavily based on history and politics from the non-fiction world… just sprinkled with the occasional Elves, Dwaves, magic, ray guns, aliens and spaceships with added funny names (which are also often taken from non-ficitional sources)? One of my hobbies as a teenager was trying to track down which historical figures, situations and politics had inspired whatever book I was reading at the time… which I used to then take great delight in pointing out to my English teacher who carried on trying to point out how banal and irrelevant SF&F was to real life….

  8. Andy – If you’re interested in that kind of thing, for my money, Guy Gavriel Kay is the best in the business at taking our real-world history and wrapping it in a speculative veneer. As with all his novels, I was absolutely blown away earlier this year with Under Heaven. George RR Martin has also said A Song of Ice and Fire is heavily influenced by the War of the Roses.

    Also, love the anecdote about the narrow-minded English teacher! If anything, professors and teachers should be the most open-minded of us all.

  9. I was blown away by how unsupportive my English teacher was of a pupil as heavily dyslexic as I am, who had taught myself to read, write and spell because of a love of fantasy fiction.I was also really impressed by how she managed to turn my parents against my reading, it took my years to untie their christian bullshit from my love of fantasy FICTION… They didn’t seem to understand that I was well aware that my choice of reading material was made up, even if it did present my young mind with many imaginary scenario’s with which to explore real world situations.

    However I did get my own back when I resubbmitted 2 essays done for English Literature that she had marked as fails to the examining board and they returned one as a B+ and the other as a C… which earned her her own trip to the headmasters office and chat with the ofstead investigators.

  10. Andy W,

    I don’t know how old you are but, whatever your age, you probably know that your teacher is a jackass.  Sometimes formal education is just something to be endured. You should be proud.  You have accomplished a great deal more than many of us have.

    I read my first science fiction story in the first grade when I was 6 – in 1950.  My mother was a librarian and reading was a deep part of the atmosphere at home.  My love for SF continued along with comic books.  At one point, my mother asked my 3rd grade teacher, who was a friend, if reading comic books was OK.  The friend replied, “He’s reading.  That’s all that matters.”

    Here’s what I am currently reading:

    “American Lion” a bio of Andrew Jackson

    “The Calculus Diaries”  by Jennfer Oulette,

    “Zero History” by Wm. Gibson

    “Imager’s Intrigue” – LE Modessitt

    “Matterhorn-A Novel of the Vietnam War” – Marlantes

    Almost all my interest in all these subjects – and more – derives from my love of SF.

    I have always loved SF for its openness to new ideas.  That openness has informed everything I’m interested in today.

    A mind lacking diverse interests is a dying mind.  I’m not there yet.  In fact, at 66, I have realized that the more I learn, the less I know.  It fuels me.

     

  11. Rick – I think your reading list is someone going to the point of this, and what Mark was getting at. A wide variety of topics is good – I tend to alternate Science Fiction with a history text.  

  12. I think you’re right.  There are a lot of new releases that get ignored as everyone focuses on the few big titles.  Having said that, as bloggers we should try to get a mix of genres (depending on what your blog is – mine’s SFF, so I want some fantasy, some science fiction, steampunk and urban fantasy, etc.).  I find there are times (like now) when I have a lot of books from publishers, so I’m reviewing a lot of new releases.  There are also a lot of sequels out at the moment that I want to read for pleasure.  There are also times when the new pickings don’t interest me as much and I have time to go back and read classics, or find midlist authors whose books look great.

  13. Wonderful essay.

    I encounter people all the time who say, “I’ve read your books 10 times!  And now I’m reading them for the 11th!”

    I always beg these folks to go out there and read other books…Greg Keyes, China Mieville, Matt Stover.

    I wrote my first novel in 1983 because I had run out of fantasy books to read – no kidding.  That’s not a problem for anyone anymore, I expect.

    Peace,

    Bob Salvatore

     

     

     

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