MIND MELD: Mainstream Authors Who Should Be Writing Genre Novels
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Lately, a number of mainstream authors have dipped their toes into the seas of genre. From Lev Grossman to Justin Cronin, mainstream authors are learning the rewards and challenges of writing SF, Fantasy and Horror. But many more authors could, and there are many favorite mainstream authors who haven’t tread into genre that would do well to try their hand in our corner of the reading and writing world.
Genres are marketing categories defined by publishers. Fiction writers have never sat comfortably within them, particularly not the best and most talented writers, who are always keen to try their hand at new kinds of story. Lev Grossman, Justin Cronin, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Will Self, Iain Banks, David Mitchell and many more are not mainstream writers dipping their toes in genre. They are writers, writing stories, and sometimes using genre as a tool along the way. The best writers use genre, but don’t allow themselves to be trapped by it.
When I interviewed Neil Gaiman for Galaxies in 2008, in one of my questions about genre fusion he answered that: “The most important thing in fantastic literature is to create a sense of wonder and a conceptual breakthrough by creating a convincing world.” I agree with Neil Gaiman and I think that this quote could be applied in any kind of literature.
I have been enchanted by Wilbur Smith’s books, especially the ones about Egypt (“River God” has incited in me a sense of wonder by far superior than some fantasy books I have read).
I was equally fascinated by Stephen Lawhead’s historical fiction like Byzantium. I am aware that Stephen Lawhead has also written fantasy and SF. His Celtic novels like “Taliesin” are something that I could qualify as “realistic versions of mythology”. In some aspects, Stephen Lawhead could even be compared to wonderful fantasy writers like Tim Powers. [Editorial note: Stephen Lawhead has just written a straight fantasy novel: The Skin Map]
Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder often explores complicated or philosophy issues using the point of view of a child. He has a particular talent in inciting a sense of wonder. His World of Sofia, even though a complex book about philosophy is so clear and very often it reminds of a fairy tale and the way it enchants you when you read it as a child.
All of them made a strong impression on me and the sense of wonder they incited in me was maybe greater than SOME of the contemporary fantasy writers. I don’t believe that the genre is so important. The most important thing is that the writer is able to “transport” the reader in whatever world she or he creates. Unlike a few “mainstream” or ” historical” or whatever other “non fiction genre” writers, many fantasy writers have forgotten what it is to be a child, to be transported in the imaginary worlds of a fairy tale; unfortunately many fantasy writers seem to despise magic or to fear it. The magic of imagination, the sense of wonder; the enchantment of a dream. And with the difficulties people face everywhere right now, God only knows how they need dreaming and hoping for better days to come…
The first thing is to get the definitions straight. There’s science fiction, and there’s category science fiction. I wouldn’t expect any writer not steeped in the traditions of the field to render a “typical” Baen or Ace or DAW book, but that doesn’t mean science fiction is the sole province of the cognoscenti. James Michener’s Space and Allen Drury’s The Throne of Saturn were well-written, well-received, massive novels that were science fiction by any definition, but clearly didn’t fit into what we know as the category.
That said, I think Tom Clancy would have no trouble writing that type of science fiction. In fact, a case could be made that he, and just about every techno-thriller author writes it to one degree or another. A new author whose debut novel, The Night Circus, shows all the skills and imagination required, is Erin Morganstern. Another capable writer who’d have no trouble writing what we’ll call non-category science fiction is James Wesley Rawles, who is already dabbling with alternate history in Survivors. And to name a fourth, David Baldacci, who’s also tiptoeing on the outskirts with James Bondian thrilled like The Sixth Man. The boundaries are getting blurred in this 21st Century. When I was a young man, you hid your copy of Astounding or F&SF inside a copy of Playboy so people would merely think you were obsessed with sex rather than out-and-out crazy. But we’ve reached a point where science fiction films dominate the list of top-grossing movies, science fiction and fantasy novels regularly appear on the bestseller list, and to bring it back to the subject at hand, the “mainstream” writer I consider the best American writer of the past 40 years, Edward Whittemore, may well have been writing a form of science fiction with his brilliant Jerusalem Quartet.
I think I have to gently disagree with the foundation of the question. Influence and effect in writers isn’t like being in a country with a distinct boundary, and on one side is a country called Mainstream and on the other one called Genre. It’s somewhat wrong to think that mainstream authors just read non-genre fiction, for one thing. For another, we have plenty of writers in “genre” who are influenced by mainstream authors, and who simply put that influence toward fiction that happens to have some fantastical or SF element or concept. This is particularly important because you have writers in the “mainstream” whose essential world view is surreal and fantastical even if they don’t stick a dragon in their work, and you have fantasy writers who are so practical and literal and realistic in their approach that they most decidedly do not have a fantastical world view. So I guess what I’m saying is that plenty of “mainstream” writers have already committed fantasy without it being explicitly in the form of a dragon jutting up out of the text like a jack-in-the-box.
What writers would I like to see do SF and F? The answer for me is that I really don’t care. I don’t really give a crap if John Irving sticks a dragon in his next novel or not. I read writers because they show me something different or they have genius-level imaginations or they’re incredibly entertaining, or some combination of all of this. I could care less about the genre element. The genre element is just a thing. An inert thing that helps identify a book in a bookstore or for reviewers or for a marketing department.
A more germane question for me is: Why do almost no writers identified as “genre” writers write anything that could be identified as “mainstream” (to use these terms in your construct, not mine.)
Science fiction as a genre has never been known for its literary merit. Its focus has always been chiefly on idea. Which is not to say that all science fiction writers are appalling prose stylists. There are some excellent writers working in genre fiction, but not very many of them. However, when literary authors write genre, they often display a lack of confidence in their deployment of genre tropes, and this often translates as a somewhat old-fashioned approach to the ideas around which they write their stories. And while they may well have the writing chops to shame their sf peers, they tend not to foreground their ideas, and so often produce stories which genre readers can find dissatisfying.
But not always.
Some of my favourite literary authors have in the past tried their hand at genre, though the books are rarely acknowledged as such. Lawrence Durrell’s The Revolt of Aphrodite, comprising Tunc and Nunquam, is about the creation of an Artificial Intelligence and an android. However, in the two novels these two tropes are used to explore entirely non-sf themes. The prose is, of course, gorgeous. John Fowles’ A Maggot is an historical mystery set in 1736, but at one point describes the arrival of a time-machine? spaceship? and the effect of the actions of its crew on a woman of the time. Even Nicholas Monsarrat, who is best known for his WWII Atlantic convoy classic The Cruel Sea, had a go at genre. The Time Before This narrates the discovery in the far north of Canada of a repository stocked by a civilisation which existed before humanity. And Smith and Jones reads for almost its entire length like a spy thriller but turns into alternate history on the last page. Anthony Burgess, of course, wrote several science fiction novels. Or, as he called it, “futfic”. The most famous is The Clockwork Orange, but there’s also The Wanting Seed, which is set in a future over-populated UK in which homosexuality is preferred. And 1985, written as an answer to Owell’s 1984, postulates an alternate UK run using syndicalist politics. Philip Kerr is chiefly known for his Bernie Gunther series of crime novels, beginning during the years of the Weimar Republic, and progressing through war-torn Germany, and then post-war Europe and South America. The Second Angel, however, is pure science fiction, and extremely cleverly done. It describes a raid on a blood bank on the Moon in a future when a virus has infected almost everyone. Jed Mercurio’s Ascent reads like a tightly-focused character study of a Soviet pilot during the Korean War and his subsequent exile at an airbase in the Arctic Circle, before becoming alternate history as he is selected for a secret Soviet mission to the Moon. It is excellent.
Pretty much every mainstream and/or literary writer whose books I read has at some point tried genre, either knowingly or unknowingly. Writers such as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michel Faber, Michel Houellebecq, Liz Jensen, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Robert Irwin, Jan Morris. Plus many whose careers I do not follow so assiduously: Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Hall, Maggie Gee, PD James, Philip Roth, Richard Powers, Nevil Shute, Len Deighton, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Cunningham, and so on. It has to be said, however, that the genre novels of the above writers have not always been their most successful books – either as science fiction or as literary fiction. But they do provide an often unique perspective on the genre.
Finally, there are a few literary authors I’m not aware have ever written genre, and I would have loved for them to have done so – DH Lawrence, Paul Scott, WG Sebald. Perhaps in some alternate history, they did…
I would like to see Jonathan Franzen write a fantasy novel.
I sort of suspect he has it in him. There’s a teasing thread of Narnia allusions that runs through his third novel, The Corrections. There’s a child who’s obsessed with Narnia, there’s an experimental mood-altering drug called Aslan…I’m just saying. The mythology is there, somewhere, in his brain.
I’d like to see it just because his writing is so un-fantastical. He’s one of the stauncher realists around. If he could put that kind of concreteness, that close observation of detail, that extreme psychological acuteness, that disciplined and funny and unsentimental prose, in the service of the fantastic, I bet amazing things would happen.
And I think it would be good for him. His plots sprawl. Fantasy demands a different kind of story than those big realist novels. Fantasy plots are more tightly wound. If nothing else, it would be good exercise for him.
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