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Storytime with Neil Gaiman
June 28, 2010 1:41 PM   Subscribe


 
Shouldn't good writing tell a story too?

I think so. Of course, other people feel differently. There's lots of writing for people of all tastes, so there's no need to argue about anything.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:45 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the AP link: U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb heard Monday from Gaiman, McFarlane and comic book author Brian Holguin but did not rule on Gaiman's claim that he is owed royalties from three characters — the demon Dark Ages Spawn and two scantily clad female angels. The judge, clad in a dark robe, gave both sides until June 25 to submit additional arguments.

I don't know why, I just really like that the reporter felt the need to note the judge's dark and foreboding robe, as if to invite a comparison to Spawn's cape or something.
posted by Think_Long at 1:48 PM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


Here I was hoping that the first few Sandman issues were actually a parable about Duran Duran. No, no such luck. Too bad.
posted by GuyZero at 1:50 PM on June 28, 2010


Could be worse.
posted by Artw at 1:50 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not really sure if it's controversial to say you like stories with great writing and a good plot. I love Gaiman but there is something insecure about him, as if he believes that because he is a "genre"writer, he will never get the respect he deserves. From where I stand, he has as much respect as a living writer could have.
posted by cell divide at 1:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


He also recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who.
posted by lholladay at 1:54 PM on June 28, 2010


I don't know why, I just really like that the reporter felt the need to note the judge's dark and foreboding robe, as if to invite a comparison to Spawn's cape or something.

The reporter was probably just doing their best to combat the popular and surprisingly enduring misconception that, like female angels, female judges often perform their duties scantily clad.
posted by cmonkey at 1:54 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm reading Stories right now, and I like the ones I've read for the most part.

"Blood" by Roddy Doyle - Pretty neat take on a very tired idea (domesticated vampires). Gets major points off for non-standard dialog grammar. Uses dashes instead of quotes. Why... why Roddy?

"The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman - Nice little fantasy story that manages to touch on stuff that's usually held aside for literary fiction.

"Weights And Measures" by Jodi Picoult - Jodi Picoult takes family melodrama and tries to go all Borges with it. It doesn't work. Not even a little.

"Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick - I liked this one. It's about a guy who falls into a magical lake and has to make a choice to stay or leave. But there's a bit more to it than that.

"Mallon The Guru" by Peter Straub - Straub builds a cool atmosphere and doesn't really go anywhere with it. I finished reading it with a shrug.

"The Therapist" by Jeffery Deaver - A serial killer story that's not bad, but also not great. I like the fact that whether or not there's a magical element is left up to the reader, but it's sort of generic otherwise.

So, about a third of the way through, it's a mixed bag so far. Nice to read people trying new things (even with occasionally limited success).
posted by codacorolla at 1:55 PM on June 28, 2010


I am now envisioning Scalia as Clown in Spawn.

SCALIA: I say destroy freedom, ask questions later.

Violator indeed.
posted by adipocere at 2:10 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


this is the first I'd heard of the suit between mcfarlane and gaiman. doesn't it seem weird for mcfarlane to be acting like characters someone else created belong to him as the publisher? I mean, that's the whole reason he founded image, n'est-ce pas?
posted by shmegegge at 2:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Robert McKee's famous book Story, and its associated seminar business, are largely aimed at the screenwriting trade, but contain some very good advice for anyone thinking of putting together a narrative in any medium"

YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
posted by shmegegge at 2:15 PM on June 28, 2010


I like a ripsnorting collection of yarns as much as the next person, and I've no doubt any lit'rary v. genre antipathy's being played up by the journalist for sexy fightin' talk. But whenever I hear about yet another one of these "why is it nobody cares about story anymore" tussles (such as), I can't help but think of what Borges wrote in what was it 1940-something?
Around 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill.
Anyway. A boat floated is a boat floated. End with rousing chorus of de gustibus.
posted by kipmanley at 2:15 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


schmegge, you have no idea.
posted by bonehead at 2:26 PM on June 28, 2010


(sorry, schmeggegge)
posted by bonehead at 2:28 PM on June 28, 2010


"There's lots of writing for people of all tastes, so there's no need to argue about anything."

You must be new to Metafilter.
posted by oddman at 2:42 PM on June 28, 2010


THERE MUST ONLY BE ONE KIND OF WRITING EVER AND I PROPOSE IT BE ANGRY, ALL-CAPS INTERNET COMMENTS
posted by No-sword at 3:17 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


doesn't it seem weird for mcfarlane to be acting like characters someone else created belong to him as the publisher?

It seems weird to me... But it'd be weird to me if it turned out McFarlane thought he owned Spawn, considering it's just Spider-man with Ghost Rider chains... I mean if he wins this can't Marvel eat him alive?
posted by ServSci at 3:18 PM on June 28, 2010


cell divide:

"I love Gaiman but there is something insecure about him, as if he believes that because he is a 'genre' writer, he will never get the respect he deserves."

Neil doesn't strike me as particularly insecure, either as a writer or as a person, and at this point, with multiple NYT bestsellers, books that have won Hugos, Nebulas, Newberry and Carnegie Awards, and books that have become Oscar-nominated film adaptations, I don't suspect he much worries about the level of respect he gets, either. He seems to be doing just fine in that regard.

On the literary level, there is a point to be made that in literary fiction, writing style is privileged over story telling, whereas in genre fiction it's often considered be to the other way around. I suspect the point Neil is trying to make is that rather than have one privileged over the other, it's possible (and desirable) to have both. This does seem to be an obvious point, but as someone who has read both plotless but prettily-written lit fic, and plot-ful but cardboard genre fic, the point it not perhaps as obvious as it should be.
posted by jscalzi at 3:24 PM on June 28, 2010


Wait what, Spawn was a TV series?
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:28 PM on June 28, 2010


Oh right, cartoon.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:31 PM on June 28, 2010


I've been reading Stories here and there (it seems like there have been a lot of very nice genre-y anthologies of late, or is it just me?), and while Gaiman's introduction could well be off-puttingly twee to the kind of people who would read a book for, say, a Lawrence Block story about a semi-reformed serial killer, I'm finding the book rewarding thus far. I agree that Gaiman's point should be obvious, but...yeah, sit in on a collegiate creative writing workshop sometime. It isn't.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:51 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I should have checked Gaiman's website... He's also just won a Locus award for a story based on Jack Vance's Dying Earth, and there's his acceptance bit there, which is rather nice.

There's also a link to the story The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
posted by Artw at 4:02 PM on June 28, 2010


Hasn't this Gaiman v. Mc Farlane thing been going on for something like 10 years now? What's the deal? Mc Farlane is a bit.. Well anyway. But Gaiman is supposed to be a reasonable person.
posted by Chuckles at 4:02 PM on June 28, 2010


If those libraries were closed down he wouldn't be able to charge them $45,000 speaking fees any longer.
posted by ecurtz at 4:06 PM on June 28, 2010


I find it weird that the author of the Gaiman v. MacFarland AP article took time out to note that the judge presiding over the case was "clad in a dark robe." As opposed to what, a flower-print mumu?
posted by eugenen at 4:16 PM on June 28, 2010


Counterpoint to ecurtz's $45,000 speaking fee snark.
posted by digitaldraco at 4:46 PM on June 28, 2010


Chuckles, Gaiman wrote about the McFarlane situation a couple weeks ago. TL;DR: Gaiman won the big copyright case back in 2002, but McFarlane's company went bankrupt and could not pay out the royalties. Now that the company's out of bankruptcy, they're trying to finalize the details on what exactly is owed.
posted by dmit at 4:54 PM on June 28, 2010


Look, I adore Gaiman but his films prove that he's really a 14-year-old girl. And they better not EVER make American Gods into a movie; I'm sure someone will try, anyway, but some things should be left unadapted.

Like most of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King's work, actually.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


But it'd be weird to me if it turned out McFarlane thought he owned Spawn, considering it's just Spider-man with Ghost Rider chains... I mean if he wins this can't Marvel eat him alive?

There's a long comics tradition of "isn't this just." The most egregious example is probably Marvel's Hawkeye and Mockingbird, who are pretty much Green Arrow and Black Canary with the serial numbers indifferently filed kinda-off.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:28 PM on June 28, 2010


Marvel's Hawkeye and Mockingbird, who are pretty much Green Arrow and Black Canary with the serial numbers indifferently filed kinda-off

*Mind blown, sadly*
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:12 PM on June 28, 2010


What, me snark? It isn't like I said he endorses eating whale sushi or anything like that.
posted by ecurtz at 7:09 PM on June 28, 2010


Oh, the McFarlane-Gaiman royalty dust-up. The fact that this thing keeps coming back like Jean Grey comes back from the dead provides no end of mirth for me. At this point. I don't even think its about the money, I think its about Gaiman making McFarlane admit in public he fucked up and is a dick. The fact that Barry Bonds is tangentially connected to all this never fails to blow my mind.
posted by KingEdRa at 7:59 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just finished Stories and I was rather disappointed. There are some great authors there, but many of the stories seem to be second-rate. The one by Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, has been done many times before. I really couldn't get through the one by Michael Moorcock. Others just seem to end rather than concluding. Gaiman's is probably the best in the volume.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:02 PM on June 28, 2010


I'm not really sure if it's controversial to say you like stories with great writing and a good plot. I love Gaiman but there is something insecure about him, as if he believes that because he is a "genre"writer, he will never get the respect he deserves.

Many writers seem to be uncomfortable with how they are perceived by people. Speaking just as a reader, sometimes you get the impression that some of them wanted to be a different kind of writer to the one they turned out to be - David Eddings and Stephen King both sound, from time to time, a bit embarrassed and defensive about their writing - a bit, "damn the literary establishment for being too snooty to recognise me".

Perhaps it's that the talent that a writer has isn't necessarily the one they wanted. The books they like to read aren't necessarily the books they are capable of writing.

Whether or not Neil Gaiman himself is insecure, though, is pretty hard to say and it seems insulting to speculate. He has, however, always presented himself - or been presented - as someone who straddled the literary and genre worlds. Look at the introductions to Sandman, for example, written by, among others, Stephen King, Samuel R. Delaney and Norman Mailer. This was clearly an attempt to say "no, this is not just a comic, this is something more literary than that" - and indeed the content of the stories was frequently in dialogue with literary classics (e.g. Marco Polo, Shakespeare, Suetonius, Ovid etc.)

For what it's worth, I actually prefer his work when he isn't trying to "tell a story". His fondness for plot coupons is pretty off-putting - he likes them, but I find that they tend to turn a story into a time-serving, predictable, mechanical experience. My heart sank when Coraline became a "collect the souls" plot.

When he is pastiching, experimenting or writing honestly about life ("The Goldfish Bowl", "The Golden Boy"), I really like his work. Sandman had a genuinely exciting feeling of experimental energy to it that I don't think I have found in any of his recent work.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:02 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Many writers seem to be uncomfortable with how they are perceived by people. Speaking just as a reader, sometimes you get the impression that some of them wanted to be a different kind of writer to the one they turned out to be - David Eddings and Stephen King both sound, from time to time, a bit embarrassed and defensive about their writing - a bit, "damn the literary establishment for being too snooty to recognise me".

No, I'm pretty sure I know exactly why; it's because of the flak they take from critics who are contemptuously dismissive of their work because stylistically it doesn't match the checklist handed down by the professoriat for Great Works Of Literature™. Because, you know, great literature is so simple that there's a recipe book for doing it right (Robert McKee probably sells it for $100,000 in a behind-closed-doors one day seminar), so if you can't follow the recipe and produce something that conforms to the faculty standard for tenure track literature in Creative English, what use are you?

(I may be projecting a little bit here — I haven't, like, asked Neil whether he really wanted to write for Mills & Boon instead of being a goth demi-god — but the "genre fiction doesn't count" attitude is still with us, and regrettably common.)
posted by cstross at 2:34 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think the solution here is to start categorizing all of the Great Works of Literature into little genres themselves and then refer to them as such. Family Struggle (much of Dickens). Angsty Guy (Sorrows of Young Werther, most of Hesse). The marketers will help once the concept is introduced, as they love classification. The optimal classification scheme should be not be so obviously snarky, but ought to rely on some common element which is both reductively accurate while being seductively labelicious, the way "fantasy" means almost nothing until someone explains that it has to do with elves and spells, and that "science fiction" somehow also includes alternate histories, and no science at all.

After a decade of "Oh, didn't he win some award for Angsty Guy fiction?" Balkanization none of that will be taken with the grim seriousness we so often associate with discussions about literary works. And then they will have to stand on their own merits, rather than the appeal of being a carefully crafted bundle of the sorts of things English departments love to analyze and write about. That literary novels are so often pushed as the thing "you ought to be reading" is like suggesting pets based on how easily the biology department can dissect them.
posted by adipocere at 4:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, I'm pretty sure I know exactly why; it's because of the flak they take from critics who are contemptuously dismissive of their work because stylistically it doesn't match the checklist handed down by the professoriat for Great Works Of Literature™.

Just out of curiosity, who are you thinking of here? Is it a specific review? (Something like Harold Bloom's famously bizarre review of Harry Potter, perhaps?) Is it a specific critic?

And are you taking a swipe at Mills & Boon? I cannot hear your tone of voice on the internet, of course, so perhaps I have misunderstood you - but I assume you are not implying that the romance genre is somehow inferior to the fantasy genre?

(Mills & Boon are very formulaic romances, of course, but the formula isn't easy to master, many people spend their lifetime wanting very much to be Mills & Boon authors and not goth demi-gods - and should not be sneered at for that - and there are many, many, many formulaic fantasy books...)
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:00 AM on June 29, 2010


After a decade of "Oh, didn't he win some award for Angsty Guy fiction?" Balkanization none of that will be taken with the grim seriousness we so often associate with discussions about literary works. And then they will have to stand on their own merits, rather than the appeal of being a carefully crafted bundle of the sorts of things English departments love to analyze and write about.

But the thing is, that's what literary works already are: the stuff you study in an English degree is there either because it is very good (and has stood the test of time) or because it illustrates the context that something else worth discussing emerged from.

We still study Jane Austen and Collins and Dostoevsky and Elliot and Shakespeare and Sophocles and so on because these guys were - are - very, very good. People in English departments aren't weirdos with a perverse fondness for frills and the word "thee" - they are people, intelligent people, with a sensitivity to language and a love of the things they teach that often equals the passion that anybody here feels about Lovecraft, Howard, Aasimov, Gaiman, Clarke (Susannah and Arthur C.) or Tolkein. And I would go further: you can set any of the authors in the first group I mentioned up against any of the authors in the second group I mentioned and, insofar as it is possible to compare one book with another, the first group more than hold their own. In fact, I reckon they'd win out very thoroughly on merits - on pure merits alone. (But that's just my opinion and I'd be happy to debate it some time without resentful sneering on either side).

Perhaps twenty years from now, when the dust has settled, there will be university courses on The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman and Comics, 1980-2000 or Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and the Millenial Rennaissance in Children's Literature. People already write theses on these subjects. There is nothing to say that the "canon" cannot be re-written - people do it all the time. But many of the books that are already there will continue to be there because people - people as real and important as the ones who like science fiction and fantasy - like them, understand them and want to talk about them.

Nobody likes to be sneered at. Nowadays, though, it often seems that the fire really is coming from both sides in the great genre vs. literature debate. In my opinion this debate shouldn't be there at all - and anyone who devotes an ounce of effort to perpetuating it, rather than moving past it, is just wasting everybody's time by promoting a siege mentality.

Cards on the table: I seldom read genre fiction nowadays. I used to, when I was younger, all the time. Now, I'm afraid I just find most of it badly written and formulaic and plain dull. Some of it - Frank Miller, C. S. Lewis - shows flashes of great talent but really, deeply twisted morals.

But I will bow to nobody in my ongoing love of the authors I mentioned above, not to mention Dunsany, Hugo, Wilde and other explorers of the baroque and the grotesque. For all their flaws, these are genuine greats. And I am always on the look-out for something new and rich and strange. In this, English departments are an ally, not some enemy to be hated or feared.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:26 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Uses dashes instead of quotes. Why... why Roddy?

Er - because he feels it serves his style and atmosphere better? Which is a perfectly reasonable choice for a writer to make?


No, I'm pretty sure I know exactly why; it's because of the flak they take from critics who are contemptuously dismissive of their work because stylistically it doesn't match the checklist handed down by the professoriat for Great Works Of Literature™.


Oi! People who criticise a writer's style usually aren't doing it because they have a checklist; they're doing it because they don't like the writer's style. If you don't agree or don't get why, that's one thing, but assuming that people only fault things for style because they want academic approval is just as snobbish and ignorant as assuming that people only read science fiction because they can't cope with the real world. It's a kneejerk stereotype based on imputing bad motives to people on the other side of the fence. Generally people read genre fiction because they like it; generally people make an issue of style because they care about it.

And speaking as someone who gets published as genre in the US and literary in the UK, and who isn't mad about genre classifications despite writing in a style that usually gets well-reviewed - nah. It's not about the reviews, or at least not necessarily. There are good reasons to be uncomfortable with genre classifications. I'm not crazy about them because they tend to create artificial divisions between books based on genres that are primarily a bookseller's convenience rather than an artistic standard; in terms of actual aesthetic, values and tastes, a book from Genre A may have far more in common with a book from Genre B than it does with anything else in Genre A, but rigid genre classifications insist on sticking them on different shelves - and marketing them to different groups of people. Everyone misses out.

Not only do you wind up with self-perpetuating ghettoes - which writers themselves may not particularly want to join just because their books happen to come out a certain way - but you start getting literary politics as well. People start allying themselves with Genre A or Genre B and sniping at each other. When that happens, it becomes about subcultural identity rather than about, y'know, books, and then there's nothing to do but go home and pull the covers over your head, because art has been appropriated and turned to a bad purpose.

There's a perfectly straightforward reason why 'many writers seem to be uncomfortable with how they are perceived by people'. It's because people often make assumptions about the writers based on genre that are at variance with what the writers know about themselves, and it's extremely disconcerting to have people pronouncing that you're this or that kind of person when you know perfectly well that you're no such thing.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole concept of genre is a disastrous one. It appeals far too much to parochialism and conservatism (small-c), and far too little to the possibility that different minds might meet on good terms.
posted by Kit W at 7:06 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's was an interesting interview with Gaiman about the Carnegie Award and The Graveyard Book on Radio 4 the other day... you can still listen via their website or podcast.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:35 AM on June 29, 2010


I know what you mean by the twisted morals. I went into The Screwtape Letters expecting, yes, some Christianity, but a Christianity tempered by some kind of gentleness, and received instead a not particularly subtle novel in the epistolary style which was not so much Christian apologetics as it was Christianity, the Second Wave Assault. Not the great novel I had been told to expect, at all.

English departments ought to be an ally. So often, though, they are not, and in a very predictable fashion, consisting of the veneration of the classics (the old error), the agendaism (look at how awful this author's social attitudes are when judged by our current standards), and deconstruction (this text can mean anything, let me show you my thesis). The treatment I have seen genre (ugh) fiction receive at the hands of the English department has been nothing less than ghastly, and at more than one university. The course description might talk about exploring science fiction, but I instead get a feminist critique of "sci-fi," which is at the very least a bait and switch. Perhaps it is a Midwest compensation thing, but genre fiction seems to be treated as if it were fast food, if it was noticed at all. This is a shame, because, Eddings aside, I run across chunks in works from, say, Alastair Reynolds, and would like to say, "Here, you, look at this. This here is poetry," but the sight of a spaceship on the book cover kills any chance. Why don't these people know who Michael Moorcock is? His work is a carnival for anyone who wants to explore tropes and archetypes, but I ask around and I get headscratching. I've endured professors who openly ignore Campbell (who, for better or for worse, has made quite an impact) in favor of some trifling work where They Can Make an Important Observation.

Genre fiction is painfully aware of this and the reactions to this awareness range from awkwardly trying to fit in with the lit crowd to a Tarantino-like "embrace the trash" philosophy. I think that's a shame. While "continue forth with quiet dignity in the face of your unrecognized quality" is an option, it's not particularly attractive.
posted by adipocere at 8:45 AM on June 29, 2010


Adipocere, you raise a lot of interesting points and, unfortunately, I am at work and under the shadow of several deadlines, so I cannot respond to them with the consideration and length they deserve. Then again, I have already written something like an essay in answer to your last point, so you - and everybody else - may be sick of hearing my opinions altogether.

Nevertheless: I do agree with you that many critical approaches to genre fiction fail to appreciate the fun and creativity that lies at the heart of the best examples. Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel that this is true of almost any author - a feminist critique of something can be done well or badly and that is very much down to the individual feminist.

The linguistic turn in philosophy and literary analysis muddied waters in a great many areas, including encouraging literary academics to adopt some stylistic tics of debatable value, in order to reflect political positions that might have been better stated clearly and outright. But I do think that when you come to compare several works of fiction, the political or philosophical stance of the author is a natural point of comparison. Some works lack what-if scenarios or even plots and characters, but it is very hard (perhaps impossible) to create a work of art that does not, in some way, present a vision of life. We can then interrogate that vision and ask what the author considers important. And that, in turn, leads naturally to questions of "how does this author see women?", "how does this author see other classes?", "how does this author see science?" and so on. And these are important and interesting questions to many people. So, the sort of things that academics want to talk about are partly a function of what academics have to do (compare lots of different texts or talk about the interesting features of a few "great" ones).

As for continuing on with quiet dignity... well, why do you need to care at all? If you like a particular author, read them. If you like writing in a particular style, write that way. To ask a question to which I can conjecture several possible answers (but I do not want to pre-empt them): honestly, why does anyone care so much about genre fiction being considered equal to literary fiction? What do you get out of it?
posted by lucien_reeve at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2010


why does anyone care so much about genre fiction being considered equal to literary fiction?

Because, simply nobody likes beeing sneered at. This is particulalry true when what's help up as "literature" would be comfortably "genre" if published by first-time writers---are Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon or Margret Atwood "genre" writers? The mania to exclude from serious consideration works based on publishers' marketing classifications regardless of all else, quality included, seems very short sighted.
posted by bonehead at 9:34 AM on June 29, 2010


I like the contrast between how Chabon & Gaiman approach the question. Chabon is much more challenging about it, more assertive, and that's so totally consistent with his narrative style. Gaiman seems a tad more laid back on the issue.

I admire the hell out of them both; I just think it's a great illustration of how different minds think through the same issue. I feel quite sure they could have a very exciting discussion about it over beers, at which I'd love to be a fly on the wall.
posted by lodurr at 9:46 AM on June 29, 2010


This is particulalry true when what's help up as "literature" would be comfortably "genre" if published by first-time writers

Though it must be noted that first time writers might be better off being "genre".
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on June 29, 2010


While "continue forth with quiet dignity in the face of your unrecognized quality" is an option, it's not particularly attractive.

I really don't see why not. Acting dignified is an assertion of one's own worth; slinging ignorant insults just confirms the idea that genre is the province of emotionally undeveloped oddities, at least in the eyes of a lot of bystanders, and that's hardly going to lend credence to its defenders. Being rude is doing the genre a bad favour. I incline to think that genre would get more recognition faster if its fans howled less at the first sign of criticism. Criticism is part of the literary game; if you can't weather it, you're kind of excluding yourself. No one likes to play with a bad sport.

Because, simply nobody likes beeing sneered at.

But look at how much sneering literary fiction gets from genre fans. There's no position you can occupy that's sneer-proof except total anonymity.

Besides, there's a difference between 'being sneered at' and 'not being considered equal' - especially if the inequality is based on specific comparisons, such as 'Genre Book X does not compare well to its closest literary equivalents'. That's not sneering, it's criticism. When people start throwing insults to literary fiction around in supposed retaliation for such criticisms, they come across as being unable to distinguish between the two.

The other problem is when genre fans go the 'checklist' route, which is to say, they deny the validity of any criteria an academic or literary bod might use to evaluate literature. Now, debating the terms on which literature might be evaluated is an interesting and legitimate field for discussion, but blanket dismissals that imply there's nothing to it except an attempt to impress the faculty are a refusal to even try to understand the criteria.

And if you aren't prepared to try and understand the criteria, then what grounds do you have for taking umbrage if your pet genre isn't judged favourably by them? You either don't understand them, in which case you don't know if the judgement is fair or not, or you don't think there's any value in them, in which case acceptance on their terms should be meaningless to you anyway. You can't have it both ways: either literary fiction and its standards are a load of rubbish anyway, in which case who cares what its proponents think, or there is some value to its proponents' judgements, in which case insulting them isn't very clever.

In terms of logical consistency, none of it justifies the intemperance. That's why I incline to the view of literary politics; science fiction and fantasy, in particular, have a subculture built up around them and that subculture is capable of a very touchy pride which seems to be as much about identity issues as about actual books. And I think it's at least partly about the numbers its readership interact in.

Romance, for instance, is often sneered at as well, but the romance readers I know, at least, tend not to fire up at the sneering. They just shrug and go read another romantic novel. As I understand it, though, Twilight readers can get intemperate when their beloved romance is criticised - and that's a series of books that does seem to have a subculture accumulated around it, while reading romance novels in general seems to be a more solitary or shared-pleasure-with-a-small-group-of-friends habit to it.

So like I say, I think science fiction and fantasy readers have a tendency to get political about it in a way that doesn't sit well with academic debate. (Academic debate is interested in politics, of course, but not usually subcultural politics, unless SF fans want to find themselves studied as an anthropological phenomenon, which I doubt they'll be volunteering for in droves.) There are some excellent books that could be classified as science fiction or fantasy and that also measure up to literary standards, and it would be good to see them get recognition, but I think SFF fans would help that along by drawing a line between a criticism of your favourite book or genre and an insult to your subculture or yourself.
posted by Kit W at 10:28 AM on June 29, 2010


But look at how much sneering literary fiction gets from genre fans.

Lot of good it does them. Try to get a fellowship to write stories about, say, detectives who actually solve crimes.

There's no position you can occupy that's sneer-proof except total anonymity.

But there are positions from which your sneers are unlikely to have any measurable affect. 'Inside the ghetto' being one of those positions.
posted by lodurr at 10:37 AM on June 29, 2010


Try to get a fellowship to write stories about, say, detectives who actually solve crimes.

Try to get a fellowship to write stories about anything, say I. It's not as if they're a massive resource.

Besides, fellowships exist for a reason: writing books makes you poor. Based on the article Artw linked to, a writer of straight-up detective stories is probably less poor than a writer of literary fiction. It might well be that a literary author needs the money more.

Or it might be that the people handing out the fellowship personally prefer stories that don't involve detectives, but so what? It's their money. I write the kind of stories that might find it harder to get fellowship funding, but I refuse to resent it. Nobody owes a writer anything.


But there are positions from which your sneers are unlikely to have any measurable affect.

The phrase I was addressing was 'Because, simply, nobody likes being sneered at'. That's a generalisation, and implies that sneering is inherently problematic or distressing. The effects of the sneering are a different answer to the question; that would be, 'Because, simply, sneering has a consequence.' Which is not what Bonehead said. (It might be something s/he thinks, but it wasn't what s/he said in that particular comment.)

'Inside the ghetto' being one of those positions.

Okay, but what measurable effects are you talking about? How does this ghetto work? The sneers of academics are not, for instance, liable to harm the sales of a genre writer. Or if you mean in terms of esteem - well, like I said, I don't think genre fans are helping themselves any there. (Or at least, the ones who get excited about the 'sneering' aren't, and the ones sneering at literary fiction certainly aren't.)

Getting cross about it isn't constructive. Better to ask, 'What do I/we actually want?', and 'What's the best way to go about getting it?'
posted by Kit W at 10:58 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Try to get a fellowship to write stories about anything, say I. It's not as if they're a massive resource.

No, but there are two symbiotic industries (Creative Writing and Literary Fiction) that are more or less driven by them. Them, and faculty positions. Another thing you probably don't want to try to get by writing stories about detectives who solve crimes.

Besides, fellowships exist for a reason: writing books makes you poor. Based on the article Artw linked to, a writer of straight-up detective stories is probably less poor than a writer of literary fiction. It might well be that a literary author needs the money more.

Based on the evidence I've seen, this is off by about 180 degrees.

The mistake is to think of literary fiction as something you make money at by publishing books. I daresay that the median income of people who spend a substantial part of their time writing literary fiction is greater than that of people who spend a substantial part of their time writing genre fiction. It's just that the income doesn't come from selling stories, it comes from your salary as a fellow or adjunct or professor (and yes, having spent a great deal of time in academe and being married to a former-long-time-adjunct, I am well aware of how little adjuncts and grad students make -- it's still more than most writers do).

IOW, my point was precisely that 'writing makes you poor.'

The sneers of academics are not, for instance, liable to harm the sales of a genre writer.

Good grief, no. On the other hand, how much are those sales again?

Being in or out of the ghetto isn't about whether people respect you or not, it's about how much power you have -- or, more precisely, how the people outside the ghetto contain your power. Of course, one could argue it's really just about which literary ghetto, or which part of the greater literary ghetto, you're in, since none of these people really have any power. I just don't like to see the literary:genre split discussion go by without pointing out that American Literary Fiction is basically sustained by a academe.
posted by lodurr at 11:22 AM on June 29, 2010


I daresay that the median income of people who spend a substantial part of their time writing literary fiction is greater than that of people who spend a substantial part of their time writing genre fiction. It's just that the income doesn't come from selling stories, it comes from your salary as a fellow or adjunct or professor

I think that's something we'd both need statistics on. In fact, if you're making a financial argument rather than an esteem argument, we need lots of statistics. Which would be an interesting issue, in fact.

I don't think, however, that lack of money is the reason most genre fans kick off if their genre doesn't seem to get the respect they feel it deserves. It's certainly not the reason they most often mention; they talk about respect as an end in itself.


I just don't like to see the literary:genre split discussion go by without pointing out that American Literary Fiction is basically sustained by a academe.

I don't like to see a discussion of books based on the assumption that America is the only place in the world where people write or publish things. There are other countries, you know, and we like to think that we count too.
posted by Kit W at 11:36 AM on June 29, 2010


Well then boy do I have a fun thread for you.
posted by Artw at 1:00 PM on June 29, 2010


If I'm bothering to explicitly constrain my remarks to American Literary Fiction, then I would expect it to be clear that I'm not basing my remarks on the assumption that "America is the only place in the world where people write or publish things."
posted by lodurr at 1:04 PM on June 29, 2010


If I'm bothering to explicitly constrain my remarks to American Literary Fiction, then I would expect it to be clear that I'm not basing my remarks on the assumption that "America is the only place in the world where people write or publish things."

Well, it's not. Because you were making assertions about genre as a whole based solely on remarks that you later identified as American-specific but phrased as general at the time. Vague remarks about 'the evidence I've seen' are the closest you came to any kind of specificity, and beyond that, your remarks were about 'people'. Forgive me if I assume that 'people' comprises non-Americans.

Especially considering that the subject of the thread is Neil Gaiman, who is English.

You want to make it clear? 'Bother' to do it at the outset before you start making general assertions.
posted by Kit W at 1:36 PM on June 29, 2010


codacorolla: Gets major points off for non-standard dialog grammar. Uses dashes instead of quotes. Why... why Roddy?

Kit W: Er - because he feels it serves his style and atmosphere better? Which is a perfectly reasonable choice for a writer to make?

Actually, the "quotation dash" is long-standing and perfectly acceptable way of denoting dialogue. It's found throughout continental Europe, particularly in France, but usage has also found a foothold in Ireland as well: you'll see it not only in all of Doyle's books but also in Irvine Welsh and other Irish writers, presumably as a hat tip to James Joyce, who insisted on using the dashes in his own work.
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:07 PM on June 29, 2010


Pff. Put me in the camp of people finding it fucking annoying and pretentious, even from writers who I otherwise like.
posted by Artw at 2:10 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Then why didn't you "bother" to cite an instance before I explicitly constrained my remarks?

As far as evidence, I notice you're not offering any either. But I will point out that the vast majority of short story publication in the genre markets is paid at a rate of less than 8 cents (American) per word (in England, too, the last time I checked), and those are being published by people who don't have their job because they're writers. It's true, I don't know whether there's a Creative Writing establishment in British universities; are you telling me that there's not? I'll have to take your word for it, clearly, and you'll have to take my word for now that there IS one one here (and in Canada, too -- that is how Ms. Atwood makes her living, after all).

Since this is starting to look like a pissing contest, I'm going to bow out, now. You can win if you like.
posted by lodurr at 2:12 PM on June 29, 2010


Pff. Put me in the camp of people finding it fucking annoying and pretentious, even from writers who I otherwise like.

Even worse (for my semi-dyslexic brain) is not using quotation marks at all... makes it just about unreadable. Fuck you Cormac McCarthy.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:36 PM on June 29, 2010


Pff. Put me in the camp of people finding it fucking annoying and pretentious, even from writers who I otherwise like.

As long as I can be in the camp that finds it a perfectly nice device when used right. :-)


Since this is starting to look like a pissing contest, I'm going to bow out, now. You can win if you like.

I'm not trying to 'win'; the only thing I was taking exception to was the apparent assumption that 'people'='Americans'. Other than that I thought it might be an interesting conversation if someone had a lot of statistics, but never mind.


It's true, I don't know whether there's a Creative Writing establishment in British universities; are you telling me that there's not?

There are a small number of university courses, if that's what you mean, but very few compared with the States, I believe. There are also small grants writers can get from charities and local authorities, not very plentiful; how those are allocated I couldn't say. But a professorship teaching Creative Writing is definitely not something one would be wise to bank on, because there just aren't that many courses.

Anecdata: I applied for a one-semester fellowship of that kind teaching undergraduates. My genre status is, to say the least, debatable, in that I use fantasy tropes but get published by a literary imprint in the UK and a science fiction one in the US - but it's got enough genre associations that I would expect automatic snobbery to disqualify me from such a position if it were a major issue.

However, I got invited for an interview. I didn't get the position, but that had nothing to do with genre; based on how the interview went I'm pretty sure it's because my ideas on teaching methods and writing process weren't compatible with theirs; however, they're similar to those of an acquaintance who writes pure literary fiction, so that's not a genre issue.

So my personal experience has not found me excluded from university consideration based on any genre issues. This is, of course, merely one person's experience.
posted by Kit W at 2:36 PM on June 29, 2010


I'm gonna try not to write a book here:

I think the self-esteem issue can have kind of an ugly, deforming effect on genre writers. I'm sorry, but I can't think of a better way to put that, or one that comes closer to meaning what I'm attempting to say.

Ray Bradbury tells an anecdote about grade school classmates who made fun of his scrapbook full of Buck Rogers comic strips, and how he eventually buckled under the mocking and ripped the book up -- then burst into tears and set about putting it together again. I'm not saying that success equals anything other than success -- God knows there are a lot of people who have it and don't deserve it -- but seven or eight decades later, I know who Ray Bradbury is, and I neither know nor give a damn who any of his tormentors were. They're probably dead and forgotten by everyone except their families, and in all likelihood their families didn't like them, because really, the kind of kid who makes fun of Buck Rogers is all too likely to grow up and be a real asshole, don't you think? I think so.

Without naming names, though, I think some genre writers try to have it both ways and be "mature" while continuing to write genre fiction, only they don't get what actually makes mature work mature, they think it's either dull plotlessness or...I think it was Grant Morrison's observation that someone pissing in the sink of a basement is somehow "real" to some literary types, which is kind of ironic since these are usually people who've come from pretty comfortable middle-class backgrounds and are about as personally acquainted with that kind of "reality" as ten-year-old Ray Bradbury was with the 25th century, but anyway, the ugly = real virus is one genre writers may be particularly susceptible to, because ugly is something that wants to be taken seriously so badly and so do they. You know the writers I mean. They kind of suck, but I feel sorrier for them than anything else, because I'm certain they aren't happy and I get where they're coming from, totally. They need to tape their scrapbooks back together in the worst way.

That said, this is not me saying that genre fiction should be sanitized. (My horror stories I prefer quite unsanitized, thank you very much.) Fantasy stories don't have to be written for children. I'm just saying that the lessons some fantasy writers take away from (usually one-sided) conversations with literary fiction seem generally to be the wrong ones, and I blame both sides for that -- the literary types for being dicks, pretty much, and the genre types for being thin-skinned and too reactive to criticism. A lot of that comes from the notion that literary writers are an authority in a way that they're really not, actually. I mean, this isn't science, it's writing stories, for Christ's sake. There are no right or wrong answers.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:30 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


the literary types for being dicks, pretty much, and the genre types for being thin-skinned and too reactive to criticism

Though to be fair, is there reason to assume that Bradbury's grade school classmates were 'literary types'? It seems to me that science fiction fans often get mocked as kids, but not necessarily for liking science fiction - or at least, what they read may be one of the things they get mocked about, but bullies pick on whatever they can find that'll get a rise and literary disapprobation is probably not at the root of it.

Anyone who's been through trauma is vulnerable to flashbacks. But, purely anecdotally, I have seen science fiction fans seem to flash back to childhood trauma when they hear literary suggestions that their favourite author might not be all that sophisticated, despite the fact that the criticism is coming from someone quite different from the childhood bullies - in fact, given what literary fiction readers are like, someone who would very possibly have been shoved into the locker next door to the science fiction fan had they been in the same place at the same time. Frequently, a bookish kid is a bookish kid as far as poundings go.

It's been my impression listening to SF fans talk, in short, that there's a bit of a tendency to conflate everybody who says anything bad about SF into a single group. And since that group may include some genuine meanies, literary types who might just honestly think that writer so-and-so isn't that good can get tarred with a rather unfair brush.


That said, this is not me saying that genre fiction should be sanitized.

It's a good point. It seems to me that what you're describing - and please correct me if I'm wrong - is less a tendency to put in genuinely-felt ugliness and grit and more a tendency to create a kind of artificial grit, born more of a desire to look edgy than out of a desire to express raw experience. And if that's the case, less of it wouldn't actually 'sanitise' anything, because it's not real dirt. Trying to look edgy generally hides the authentic experience you might otherwise express. Honesty can be harsh, but harshness isn't always honest, and it's honesty that makes for interesting work.
posted by Kit W at 1:00 AM on June 30, 2010


Trying to look edgy generally hides the authentic experience you might otherwise express. Honesty can be harsh, but harshness isn't always honest, and it's honesty that makes for interesting work.

And indeed many of the writers who dominated the so-called dark age of comics in the 1980s have since distanced themselves from that darkness - Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and, in some ways, Neil Gaiman all spring to mind.

Because, simply nobody likes beeing sneered at.

If somebody sneers at you, is the appropriate response to sneer back?

One recent post on Metafilter that I really liked was this one (it's the one where a Guardian journalist who doesn't usually read science fiction tries reading his way through the Hugo winners and blogging about his experiences). I like that he is open minded about trying something new and interested in where that takes him. More of that on both sides would be good.

In fact, one of the things that I have always liked about Neil Gaiman is that he has always tried to incorporate a very diverse range of styles and literary effects into his work. He comes across as someone who likes and appreciates good writing of all kinds and enjoys playfully imitating, engaging with and learning from it. That's part of what I meant earlier when I said that Sandman was exciting because it had an experimental energy to it.
posted by lucien_reeve at 1:21 AM on June 30, 2010


I remember an interview with Stephen King saying that in the UK there's much less of a divide between literary and genre/mainstream fiction as there is in the US and that the UK's lit writers are allowed to have things like plots in their books - he used Ian McEwan as an example.

There's certainly much less of a literary scene tied into university writing courses in the UK. There really has been only been the UEA course that's been significant... though there has been a bit of a rise in creative writing courses recently so that may change. Heard an interview with Andrea Levy the other day and she got started on an evening class in creative writing as did Marina Lewycka (though that was, I think, a course at the university she worked for)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:00 AM on June 30, 2010


Writing is an art, and the processus itself is interesting.

Bussiere
posted by bussiere at 4:09 AM on June 30, 2010


There really has been only been the UEA course that's been significant

I took that course. And near the end of it I started writing a novel involving werewolves which nobody objected to on genre grounds; people liked how it was written so they were supportive. My class teacher wasn't very familiar with this whole non-realist thing, so he suggested I go talk to one of the other teachers on the course, and the latter recommended a bunch of genre stuff he thought I might be interested in and gave me a couple of plot tips. Pretty much a positive response.

So yeah, didn't encounter much prejudice against subject. People could be very sharp about stuff they didn't think was good, and they could be unnecessarily competitive with each other - it wasn't a bed of roses - but people were quite prepared to encourage use of genre tropes if they thought they were working well.


the UK's lit writers are allowed to have things like plots in their books

Who exactly is doing the forbidding? It may well be that there are fashions in publishing and criticism, and indeed among novelists, but 'allowed' sounds a bit extreme. I mean, no disrespect to Stephen King, who's got an interesting talent and seems to be a great guy to boot, but he does have a dog in the fight when it comes to genre, and one that snarls and growls through a lot of his writing - so it's possible he might exaggerate a bit, or employ a degree of literary hyperbole, when it comes the the US literary mainstream. Or at least, not be entirely neutral.

Which isn't to say he's wrong; he could be right as right can be, and my experience of the publishing world in the UK certainly doesn't contradict him. I'd just like to hear the views of people on the other side of the fence in the US as well (anyone know any?), as it might make for an interesting comparison.
posted by Kit W at 7:19 AM on June 30, 2010


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