I ready an article recently in which noted British novelist Kazud Ishigurd expressed surprise at the backlash he received from his existing fans for writing a fantasy novel. Ishigurd had previously written a muggle novel called The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker prize in 1989, and a science fiction novel called Never Let Me Go in 2005 that received massive acclaim.
Now he has written his seventh book, The Buried Giant, a book about a quest to kill a dragon, set in a Briton that never quite existed, and his fans are flummoxed. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over why an author who is well respected for his plain prose and his appeal to the futuristic as social commentary would need to stoop to writing fantasy. He addresses those concerns in his guest appearance on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast:
“When we’re teenagers we’re very prone to this, you know, ‘If you like that band you’re not cool, if you wear those sneakers you’re cool,’ but with reading we should grow out of that, and for some reason books with dragons in them arouse some sort of fear on the part of a certain kind of insecure reader.”
I have felt this type of prejudice myself. As a child, I was not subjected to the whims of popularity and status, so I was very confident in all of my own choices, because there was really no one to challenge them. I loved fantasy novels more than any other types of entertainment because they were far larger on the inside than they were on the outside. Some introduced me to tight, exquisitely concise description, some to witty repartee, and some to creatures I would never have imagined on my own. However, as I got a little older, it became very apparent that my choice of reading material was not particularly well received by other kids my own age, and certainly not by adults. I quickly learned to hide my books in a backpack, or under my pillow when my friends came around.
This week I picked up a copy of Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, and have been enjoying it so much. The plot twisted in ways I did not expect, which is always intriguing. However, the nearly 700 page tome attracts a lot of attention, and yesterday I had to explain the book to fellow beachgoers. A twinge of familiar shame twisted in my gut as I answered inquiries, “It’s a fantasy book…” Faces changed, ever so slightly. “Oh… sure,” was the response, almost too brightly–at least it seemed that way to me.
So that brings me to the question, why are fantasy novels placed a little lower in the hierarchy than science fiction or historical novels? Where exactly in that hierarchy do they fall? Is it above or below romance novels?
I personally believe that the genre contains just as wide a range of writing styles and reading levels as any other. Perhaps that is why it gets less respect than, say, science fiction, which caters to a more mature audience, as a rule. In any case, when it comes to Ishigurd’s decision to follow his other literary successes with an Arthurian legend, I have to agree with the letter of this quote from James Wood, of The New Yorker, in his review of The Buried Giant, if not the snarky spirit in which it was said:
“You can’t help admiring a writer who so courageously pleases himself, who writes so eccentrically against the norms.”
I have hope that with brilliant contemporary fantasy authors such as Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brent Weeks writing intelligent, witty material, the fantasy genre will finally emerge as respectable. Until then, I will continue to read my fantasy novels, and perhaps with time the guilty twinges will finally fade completely.