Something strange is happening to mainstream fiction. This summer, novels featuring robots, witches, zombies, werewolves and ghosts are blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art. Following a string of supernatural successes, including last summer's hit "The Passage," a vampire epic by literary novelist Justin Cronin, and the recent surprise breakout "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness, novelists from across the literary spectrum are delivering fantasy-tinged narratives.
The explosion of fantasy titles from mainstream authors is eroding decades-old divisions in the publishing industry. "Genre" fiction, which includes categories such as detective fiction, romance, horror, science fiction and fantasy, exists in a sort of parallel publishing universe, with separate imprints, bookstore shelves and dedicated fan websites. Genre titles massively outsell literary fiction, but most works are snubbed by mainstream book critics.
In the face of declining print sales, major publishers are increasingly seeking crossover hits that break genre molds and resonate with a broad swath of readers. Fantasy and science fiction made up 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared with 7% for literary fiction, according to a survey by book industry analyst Bowker. In 2010, 358 fantasy titles hit the bestseller list, up from 160 in 2006, according to a study by Stuart Johnson & Associates and Simba Information, which track books sales.
The windfall from crossover hits can be huge. Charlaine Harris's vampire novels, which spawned the HBO series "True Blood," became a massive hit, with nearly 21 million copies in print, and more than one million Kindle copies sold. That's minor league compared with Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, with 116 million copies sold and J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels, with more than 400 million copies sold, both of which crossed the young-adult divide to reach a broad adult audience. Supernatural-thriller writer Dean Koontz has sold 450 million books.
One only has to browse bookstore aisles to see that the barriers between genres haven't fully dissolved. Books by Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury often occupy shelves in science fiction and fantasy, not literature. Even as established literary authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon experiment with science fiction tropes like alternate history and post-apocalyptic civilizations, a bias against genre lingers in literary circles.
Fantasy fans often note that the divide between popular and literary fiction was established relatively recently by the modernists, who favored hyperrealism over plot and narrative. Throughout history, pillars of the literary canon, from Homer, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare up through Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, blended natural and supernatural elements. The pendulum may now be swinging back, with literature that can be both popular and literary, realistic and fantastical.
In a sign that the geek revolution is well underway, publishers pushed fantasy titles by the dozens this week at the Book Expo America in New York, the U.S. publishing industry's biggest convention. Random House's Bantam imprint marketed its biggest summer title: George R.R. Martin's book "A Dance With Dragons," the fifth novel in his epic fantasy series, which has sold more than six million copies in North America and spawned an HBO show. Macmillan's Thomas Dunne Books spotlighted an upcoming zombie novel co-written by the author of "The Walking Dead" comic book series. At Doubleday's booksigning events, promoters dressed as circus magicians passed out caramel popcorn with ads for "The Night Circus," Erin Morgernstern's debut novel about rival magicians who fall in love. "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuck signed copies of "Damned," a novel set in hell that comes out in October.
Follow this link to read Alexandra Alter's full article.
In the same vein, Iain M. Banks wrote an article titled "Science fiction is no place for dabblers" for The Guardian a few weeks back:
The point is that science fiction is a dialogue, a process. All writing is, in a sense; a writer will read something – perhaps something quite famous, even a classic – and think "But what if it had been done this way instead . . . ?" And, standing on the shoulders of that particular giant, write something initially similar but developmentally different, so that the field evolves and further twists and turns are added to how stories are told as well as to the expectations and the knowledge of pre-existing literary patterns readers bring to those stories. Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what's been done, what's been superseded, what's so much part of the furniture it's practically part of the fabric now, what's become no more than a joke . . . and so on. It's just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research. In a literature so concerned with social as well as technical innovation, with the effects of change – incremental as well as abrupt – on individual humans and humanity as whole, this is a grievous, fundamentally hubristic mistake to commit.
Science fiction can never be a closed shop where only those already steeped in its culture are allowed to practise, but, as with most subjects, if you're going to enter the dialogue it does help to know at least a little of what you're talking about, and it also helps, by implication, not to dismiss everything that's gone before as not worth bothering with because, well, it's just Skiffy and the poor benighted wretches have never been exposed to a talent the like of mine before . . .
In the end, writing about what you know – that hoary and potentially limiting, even stultifying piece of advice – might be best seen as applying to the type of story you're thinking of writing rather than to the details of what happens within it and perhaps, with that in mind, a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it's done.
It turns out that Jeff VanderMeer didn't quite like Banks' article, which prompted him to give his own two cents on the topic:
…but…it takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel. The paychecks aren’t always necessarily that big. I kind of hope most writers are writing out of affection toward what they’re writing about, even as, of course, everyone wants to make a decent wage while doing so.
I might also point out that (1) the originality of ideas rarely seems to be the reason for most SF novels to exist—prudent recycling can yield good results; (2) non-SF audiences may not particularly care about the originality of the idea as opposed to the execution (including characterization), and (3) a lot of “SF” writers I’ve read recently don’t seem to have read much science fiction, either.
On the other hand, in some ways Banks’ fiction might prove his point. I don’t really hate his various incursions into “mainstream literary” subjects, but I do prefer the author’s science fiction more, and I know I like the SF because Banks does have a great knowledge of the field. I’m fairly sure his space opera is much wiser and richer because of that knowledge.
But that’s a different thing to say. For me to say this about a particular writer working in a particular specialized subgenre doesn’t mean I’m engaging in the same kinds of gross generalities as Banks in his article—at least I hope not. Mea culpa, if so.