Monday, March 14, 2011

Galen on Mainstream Genre

Over at the Clarion Foundation's official blog, literary agent Russell Galen ponders the Harry Potter phenomenon and why some genre works appeal to mainstream audiences while others fall flat. Excerpts:
[An editor and I] were having that conversation that has come up 100,000 times among science fiction and fantasy professionals: "Why is Harry Potter so successful when it doesn't contain a single element that has not been done many times, and done just as well, by established fantasy writers?" ...

JKR's clever instinct, the editor said, was to postpone the point where you need to learn a complex background in order to continue following the story. By then you would have absorbed so many small, easy-to-learn, easy-to-digest details that when you finally got to the Big Lesson, it wasn't intimidating.

I imagine it's like moving to some exotic foreign country. You land in their capital and they say, "To buy food here, you must recite the names of the Emperors of the Fourteenth Dynasty." You'd starve to death before you had time to memorize them all.

But if you only had to memorize one emperor per month for the first year, you wouldn't starve.
Read the whole thing. Mainstreaming genre can seem a dicey proposition. Those of us raised on it love those incidental details, the endlessly complicated stuff of world building. They're what cause us to curl up on the couch with The Lord of Rings or The Left Hand of Darkness or Neuromancer, and stripping them away just to reach a wider audience feels like sacrilege or the removal of some vital essence. I get that. Yet I've also known hipsters who view unpopularity as a mark of artistic integrity, the sign that their art has truly arrived. I find myself wanting to tell such folks that, you know, it might mean your efforts about as much fun to digest as a brick. Sometimes the market is right. For my own part, I love genre largely because of its stylistic inclusiveness, its willingness to suss out and steal from every area in the literary landscape. I'd hope such openness would extend not only to the stuff aficionados adore, but also to the everyday reader's sort of books.

(Picture: CC 2010 by
Profound Whatever; Hat Tip: io9)


C. N. Nevets said...

What a brilliant perspective. I love genre fiction, but as I've gotten older and had more crap rattling around in my brain and more claims on shares of that brain, that I'm really the same way.

I actually just started a fantasy book last week where I literally gave up on it in in the second chapter and I wasn't quite sure why.

This is why.

I felt like I was choking on vitamins and waiting for something yummy to eat.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I agree with all your points.

Yet as someone who writes aggressively weird fantasy, I think there's something honest in someone writing fantasy that is fantasy first, or surrealism first, or medieval culture first, or whatever. More to the point, I think there is a different chance to invite people in to the field.

Sure not everyone has time to read a book that has this sentence on its first page: "Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World." Honestly, I don't either, unless I can already come in convinced the author will make it worth my time.

But some people who wouldn't give Harry Potter the time of day might. Just as I didn't consider myself a Fantasy reader until I read Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit, for me, was an amusing diversion but too whimsical to dig my teeth into.

So I guess, while I'm all for those who manage to mainstream genre fiction, I think we're selling the genre short if we don't admit that the Tolkiens and LeGuins and Gibsons of the world can make converts as well.

After all, while some people may be sold on the genre due to its similarities to other things they've read, others love it when it offers them something new, a vastly different type of readerly pleasure from the mainstream stuff they are accustomed to.

Loren Eaton said...

I felt like I was choking on vitamins and waiting for something yummy to eat.

That's a great way to say it, Nevets. Delighting a reader is the author's first job, after all. That's part of the reason I don't like hard SF, because its authors seem to divorce enjoyment from the science.

Loren Eaton said...


So I guess, while I'm all for those who manage to mainstream genre fiction, I think we're selling the genre short if we don't admit that the Tolkiens and LeGuins and Gibsons of the world can make converts as well.

Much agreed, and part of the reason why they make converts is that they don't neglect their stories. Yes, they're pretty toothsome and challenging, but there's a lot of fun stuff in there still.

AidanF said...

Eye-opening. I stopped reading new SF&F fiction for about ten years and all I knew was that I hated getting into new stories. Once I'd gotten past the first couple of chapters I would usually fly through the book and enjoy it, but it could take me months to get through twenty pages.

I'm going to have to look at my own writing. I love rich complex worlds like Tolkien or Gibson. I've written a lot of flash (partially because I see them as good exercises for improving craft and can be done quickly) which forces you to minimize the obvious world-building because you've got to get characters and plot across in few words. Yet, this is very intriguing and I'll have to be more conscious about how I do this since I want to write books I could easily start.

Loren Eaton said...

Your flash writing is a great discipline, Aidan. I wish more speculative authors did it. It teaches you to jump right into the action and incorporate the speculative elements naturally without getting bogged down in them.