The Death Of A Thousand Lashes

For a significant part of my working life, I laboured in the print and broadcast news media, and I still provide media consultancy to various organisations. More than anyone, I know how the voice of the people is deeply unrepresentative of the wider population. But nowhere is that clearer than among those who comment on literature for a living.

Antipathy to genre fiction is deep-seated, and goes beyond mere dislike to a belief that it should be despised and derided at all costs as a way to keep up standards. In The Publisher Files, Tim Holman identifies two recent examples of snooty dismissal of genre fiction and very decently attempts to give these people the benefit of the doubt.

There is a line of thought that the majority of literary criticism is a class thing – an unconscious way for a self-perceived elite to control and contain the masses. And to listen to Mark Lawson’s destruction of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol on Radio 4 I can quite believe this – a programme so sickeningly smug, it made you consider a multi-millionaire author, perhaps the biggest-selling author in the world, as the poor underdog.

Many people in genre publishing like to rise above the constant sniping, stating these people just don’t get imaginative fiction. What can you do when they claim there is no good SF or fantasy, just “well-constructed yarns” or “entertaining nonsense”?

But there is a serious issue here. As Tim points out in his blog, it strikes at the heart of any attempt to grow the audience beyond the core readership. The disproportionately loud voice of these people creates a meme that seeps out through the population – that all genre fiction is low-brow, rubbish, not worth your valuable time. It’s corrosive, and it creates an unconscious collective standard. It’s human nature to be influenced by majority view. Buyers make choices based upon perceived value and if they are constantly told something has no value they will choose something else.

That will hamper any attempt publishers make to break fantasy and SF into the mainstream readership. For that reason alone, it can’t be ignored. It needs to resisted, harshly, at all times, and it needs to have the people at the top of the publishing ladder leading the way.

Urban Fantasy: Vampires Kill Elves

Publisher and always-readable genre commentator Tim Holman reveals the full scale of the change that is sweeping through fantasy in his blog The Publisher Files. A lot has been made of how fantasy book sales are booming, but it now seems that the vast proportion of this is down to urban fantasy. Definitions are always hard to come by when you get into the sewers of genre classification, but I think what we’re talking about here is the books of, say, Charlaine Harris, which are burning up the charts in the UK on the back of True Blood, as opposed to traditional fantasy in an urban setting.

Not only that, but the trend is increasing. With sales of urban fantasy rising, Tim makes the point that it’s only natural that publishers will follow the dollar/pound/euro/whatever and buy less epic fantasy and more of the thing that most readers want.

Genres always move in cycles. Stories get tired and readers get jaded as publishers heap on more of the same. But for me, urban fantasy is really the new horror – the successor to the Stephen King-fuelled horror boom of the eighties, and drawing in some of the same kind of readers who walked away when that cycle died.

Which does cast an interesting light on next year’s World Horror Convention. The convention seems completely to have ignored urban fantasy and opted for a celebration of horror that is rooted firmly in the distant past, if the guest of honour list is anything to go by. At the least it’s a missed opportunity. At the most it’s a comment on why horror is perceived as a dying genre by many in the industry.