Archive for January, 2011

The real never-ending story

There’s a blog post up for the non-fiction prize of the British Science Fiction Association Awards about Robert Jordan’s now legendary The Wheel of Time. In it, the writer talks about how terrible the series became after a moderately good start. I love TWoT, but it’s not an unconditional love – the books are full of cheesy details about the patterns on the women’s skirts, the female character tugging their braids and so on.

The degradation of the series – which in some ways was a masterpiece of world-building and epic high fantasy tropes – highlights that all too common phenomenon of the fantasy series – the law of diminishing returns. Too many series start off extremely promising, but don’t quite live up to that promise. In a trilogy, such as Robin Hobb’s Farseer books or Sean Russell’s The Swans’ War, maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing, but when a series drags on for fourteen books, even beyond the author’s death, the returns get smaller and smaller and smaller.

None of which is going to stop me reading Towers of Midnight in the near future, or A Memory of Light in a year’s time.

Docx versus Bakker

I just read an interesting couple of articles. Firstly was a piece on the Guardian website by Edward Docx (possibly named after a Microsoft Word document) decrying the state of literature today and basically saying that genre fiction (fantasy, thriller etc) is bad and literary fiction is good – actually, he doesn’t quite say that, but he does say that good genre fiction cannot be as good as the best literary fiction.

R Scott Bakker, author of The Darkness that Comes Before and other excellent fantasy books as well as a pair of techno-thrillers, posted a response on his Three Pound Brain blog, in which he expounds his view that critics and writers subscribe to the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, which basically amounts to a specious justification literary snobbery towards genre fiction.

To be honest, the Docx article struck a chord for me. It’s great that people are reading, but is it not a problem that people are reading the easy stuff like Harry Potter and Dan Brown in such huge numbers and not reading the challenging stuff, whatever the genre, by authors such as (picking a name completely at random) R Scott Bakker?

Most stuff is crap. I love fantasy, but I wouldn’t touch a Feist or a Goodkind novel with a barge pole. I’m sure most literary fiction is crap, too (I don’t read enough to pick some bad authors). But I think it’s true that it’s easier for publishers to put out badly written genre fiction because it ticks all the boxes or it cashes in on a current fad (Harry Potter rip-off, The Name of the Wind comes to mind). Literary fiction sells so little, that I would guess publishers have to really make sure it’s worth it before risking publishing a new literary author.

I found myself agreeing with both critiques – any worthwhile area of human endeavour or thought is complex enough that it allows multiple contradictory viewpoints, all of which have some validity. All genres have their conventions and limitations, including literary fiction. The job of a conscientious reader is to be aware of them and to read the best, whatever shelf of the bookshop it’s stocked on. The job of a good writer is to work within genre conventions and to transcend them at the same time.

Word of the day: prank

prank 2 /præŋk/

–verb (used with object)
1. to dress or adorn in an ostentatious manner: They were all pranked out in their fanciest clothes.

–verb (used without object)
2. to make an ostentatious show or display.

Origin:
1540–50; akin to D pronken to show off, strut, pronk show, finery, MLG prank pomp

—Related forms
un·pranked, adjective

Source: Dictionary.com.

These alley-ways were pranked with little knots of folk, and Fuchsia believed that she could hear the far sound of their voices rising through the air.

Source: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake.