WHAT ABOUT GENRE?
Genre snobbery has always been here, and it’s never going away.
If you’ve been following The Manila Reader for quite some time, you’d know that This Reader loves nothing more in the world right now than following BBC’s fantasy-period drama about magicians of 19th Century England, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But even before that, This Reader have been a fan of the big tome that was the novel with the same title written by Susanna Clarke.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came out in 2004, at the height of JK Rowling’s runaway bestseller and was unfortunately marketed as “Harry Potter for adults”. The book though particularly rich with insinuations of magic, myth and the supernatural has less in common with Harry Potter than Harry Potter was with CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. They just taste different.
But even fans would be hard-pressed to describe what the book was like. Like Jane Austen but with magic. But that would only put it in the same era and language. Dickens with magic? Still not quite. The tv series was pitched as Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings and it would seem that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will forever be in between genres.
It is of course unapologetically a fantasy. If we could accuse Susanna Clarke’s novel of anything else, is that it is unconventional. One reviewer observes that it has managed to upset many readers who want their fantasy to have as much spectacle and visual effects, not speeches about the practical use of magical courts. Fantasy has no place for unmagical gentlemen pouring their energies into books while listening to society gossip at soirees and tea parties.
On the other hand, readers who were promised “magic for adults” who don’t have much experience in the conventions of the genre would be without a map in its fantastic terrains.
The result is much confusion in recommendation and general bewilderment. You only need to lament the ratings drop from the first episode to the second episode of the tv series to observe how many people have found the opening to be quite a shock. You’d understand if it was substandard, but Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of the best tv adaptations done in years.
And then there are those determined never to like it because fantasy is just silly. Den of Geek made a summary of reviews of the adaptation here that made light of it’s achievements.
As genre fiction rise in popularity, with dozens of releases in books, tv and films, more and more people become more comfortable to stick to the familiar. If it’s fantasy, it should be like Lord of the Rings in scale. If it’s not fantasy or sci-fi or both but has the “surface elements” then it must be written by those important literary figures like Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood.
I mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro because he was put into spotlight with his latest novel, The Buried Giant. Admittedly, This Reader have let the book sit on her shelf for months now because life is short for books with poor reviews from writer peers, one of them Ursula Le Guin.
Kazuo Ishiguro asks in an interview: “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
The keyword here is prejudice.
In which Le Guin responds in a blog post, “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.”
There is genre snobbery there, if not deliberate, at least thoughtless indeed.
An interesting discussion at TheBlackGate.com about Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula Le Guin’s exchange is worth reading.
A more measured review by Neil Gaiman was published in The New York Times but admits in the end his inability to fall in love with it. He is the master of his genre after all and knows its conventions. But precisely how Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant performs in its experimental approach to genre (and not being genre) is yet to be proven effective.
Does genre come from these narrative conventions? Does a novel with a dragon in it automatically become fantasy? Is it still fantasy if the dragon does not behave like a dragon or if the people behave around it as if it’s a horrible plague?
That’s a slippery slope Ishiguro insists on sliding though.
If genre is not the hottest topic in town today then Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro didn’t have to sit for a conversation about it published in Newstateman titled Let’s Talk About Genre, from which this write up took its cue. The conversation was revealing. And it boiled down to genre snobbery (or snobbery in general).
There is absolutely no cause for concern about genre/book snobbery, of course. This has been happening since Gutenberg invented the printing press (or probably since the creation of man). The popularization of books at the advent of Guntenberg’s invention made books available for people of different economic class. More books are being read, more books are being unread because life is short and you can only read the best of them after all (some people haven’t heard of reading yet at this point).
The publishing crisis of the mid 20th century saw the innovation of the paperback made book even more popular. More books are being written and published. More books are being read and unread and more and more are being snubbed.
The success of Harry Potter singlehandedly created the Young Adult genre, and the genre begot genre as authors consciously catered their works for commercial success just like what Lord of the Rings did for sword and sorcery fantasy.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’s tv adaptation and the ratings response to it is a timely reminder of what we expect of our fantasies.
In an intellectual battle between ideologies, Jonathan Strange critics his tutor’s unfantastic book of magic with as much passion as could be read in any reviewer of today who expects their genre to behave in a certain way.
“Surely magic should be magical? Surely magic is to dream? Where is the wonder of England’s past? Of magic’s golden age? There is no mention of the Raven King, except to insult him and strike him low, to purge him from what we do. Norrell calls this the magic of the modern age. I say it is commonplace, mundane. I say that there is much more to English magic than this.
– Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Episode 4: All the Mirrors of the World
Exchange the word magic with fantasy or science fiction and you get the accurate rant of genre readers against genre snobs. Everywhere, we would see Johannites passionate to defend genre and there will be Norrellites who would deny it’s mystique and ask for respectability, denying the “surface elements”. And then there are those who would say it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a good story, unless of course the Game of Thrones turns into a medieval history documentary sans dragons and White Walkers.
The debate, if there ever was would continue and the publishing industry would invent better ways to market books. Meanwhile, book reviewers (like This Reader) would continue to write and read blurbs to get a helpful handle on books.