Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Snobbery

Glenda writes about how genre fiction (and fantasy fiction) is looked down upon by the self-appointed guardians of literature.

She slips in a nice quote from David Langford's March edition of his sci-fi newsletter Ansible in which he talks about UK writer, Iain Banks, who writes both 'literary' works and science-fiction:
Iain Banks's new book... is variously described. An invitation to the related `The Herald Sunday Herald Book Series' event calls it `his first literary novel in almost five years' -- as distinct from illiterary novels like The Algebraist (2004)? ... Private Eye's phrasing is `Banks's first "proper" novel (as opposed to the sci-fi stuff he turns out under the name of Iain M. Banks) for five years.' ... And Radio 4's Saturday Review, after acknowledging this author's habit of alternating the `terrestrial' and the `intergalactic', went on to say: `The Steep Approach to Garbadale is his first novel for five years ...'
Glenda has her own interesting tale of prejudice closer to home:
When I first had books published in Australia, they were unavailable in Malaysia, because I couldn't interest the publisher's distributor in supplying them to book shops here - Australian books, he said, were too expensive for the Malaysian market.

But I was being well-reviewed in Malaysian newspapers, so I approached a bookshop in Bangsar. I also wanted a bookshop I could send people to when they asked where to buy copies. I offered the proprietor a win-win solution. I was willing to supply the books, and he didn't have to pay me until they were sold. He refused the offer, and told me that he didn't stock non-literary works and the kind of people who read 'those' kind of books (i.e. trashy fantasy?) didn't come into his shop anyway.

While saying goodbye to him, a customer caught sight of the sample book I had brought along, started talking to me - and bought the book from me, right there in the shop where 'people who read those kind of books' weren't supposed to shop, right under the nose of the proprietor.

The next time I was in that bookshop, I saw he had copies of Harry Potter all over the place.
I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said "There are only good books and bad books."

Go and grab a book in a genre you don't normally read, today!


Chet said...

I wonder which bookstore in Bangsar?

Glenda Larke said...

He-he...no prizes, Chet.

Fortunately, once the books were published in USA, they became available at any bookstore with a large sff collection.

And thank you, Sharon for the thinking blogger award! I am now having to do some thinking myself about blogs... (BTW, my husband pales at some of the things I write and is always admonishing me to be careful...)

bibliobibuli said...

you are a bit daring glenda, which is why i love reading you. tell it girl!

i am also foot in mouth not careful but confining myself to the literary sphere somewhat limits the things i can rant about!

Tunku Halim said...


I reckon there are books for all occasions, all moods. I'd like to read literary stuff in the morning, non-fiction in the afternoon and popular fiction in the evenings.

Unfortunately not. Robert Jordan has his claws in me whilst Peter Carey and a huge tome on the first world war barely get read.

It'll be different next week when the Trollocs and magic-wielding women have long departed.

Do some read a book the way they might wear Louis Vuitton?

bibliobibuli said...

Do some read a book the way they might wear Louis Vuitton?

for sure they do. survey after survey in the uk shows people buy books for their home and walk about with them under their arm just to show the rest of the world how intelligent they are

read what you love, and don't let the rest of the world amke you feel guilty about it

now me, i love literary fiction, peter carey is one of my favourites among favourites ...

The Visitor said...

watever Iain Banks writes, he cannot top his greatest novel ever, THE WASP FACTORY.

when i am famous, i will buy the film rights and make a Msian film version of the story.

yeah, right.

u know, unfortunately, apart from the works of a few writers such as Gene Wolf, Fritz Leiber, Jonathan Carroll, Charles De Lint, Ray Bradbury, etc, a lot of fantasy novels are really trashy and horridly written. i dont blame people for turning away from the genre. i read something like even Anne McCaffrey, who is highly regarded as a legend of the genre, and i cant get past the second page. sci-fi, too, has its fair share of trash.

Gene Wolf is particularly good becos of his literary approach.

Anonymous said...

Suit yourself. There's trashy and horridly written, and then there's trashy, horridly written and entertaining. I read Ray Bradbury. I also read a lot of the "Forgotten Realms" series.

bibliobibuli said...

i guess too there's personal taste, visitor

there's "trashy" in every genre ...

The Visitor said...

some genres particularly more than others. romance, anyone?

The Great Swifty said...

The works of Steven Erikson and (to a lesser extent, perhaps, only because he took five long years to write one book) George R R Martin are so good that I'm baffled why no one would bother treating them as 'high-lit'.

On the other hand, I'm so dumb, I never knew that Iain Banks and Iain M Banks were the same guy. Only read stuff from the 'latter', not the former. Haha.

bibliobibuli said...

swifty - oh do go read the former especially "the wasp factory"

Anonymous said...

I got my book group to read the Wasp Factory - and had one shocked Malaysian member tell me that she would NEVER think of me the same way after that recommendation...!

Yes, visitor, a lot of fantasy books are "trashy". So are a lot of mainstream books. That's my point. You have to judge each book on its merit6s, not dismiss the whole genre. The Banks thing just illustrates how stupid it is - how can the same author "compose literary" novels on the one hand, and then "churn out stuff" on the other? He doesn't, of course. His genre novels are beautifully written literature. But the snobby reviewers mentioned won't have it...

Glenda L.

donny said...

This is my personal pet peeve, and it amuses me and irritates me in equal measure.

I got into a spat of sorts with another fellow in a bookforum I frequent not too long ago on this because he said Atwood's work shouldn't be considered genre fiction. Oryx and Crake is set in the future, with clones, but it's not a scifi novel because 'it's Atwood, and the prose is much better.' I'm first to stand up and say that genre fiction isn't always brilliant, but come on!

It's this type of snobbishness that gets me every time. You read because you want to stimulate your mind - preferably something that makes you think even after you've closed the book. That's the hallmark of good books, whatever the genre.

Why is it that when generally literary writers who cross over to genre never retains their haloed status, while genre fiction writers who write literary-level (for the lack of a better term) prose never get recognized?

I doubt anyone would deny that there are 'acclaimed' fiction out there that stink harder than a skunk trapped in an aircon. So why couldn't there be a possibility of genre fiction that's good?


bibliobibuli said...

agree with you wholeheartedly, donny, i hate this snobbishness too

IMHO "oryx and crake" is sci-fi, or i prefer, speculative fiction. and it's also literary fiction. the same could be said for "the handmaid's tale" - why should there be a problem with writers moving between genres?

Anonymous said...

I think genres themselves should only be a guide. If a time traveller travelled back in time to a sword-and sorcery world, where he argued with a priest about the present, what kind of book would that be ? :D