I said a few days back that I wanted to write something about shifts in the nature of books and how they are being marketed and shelved. The process for many years was pretty simple. You took the core element in the story, decided if it was animal, mineral or vegetable and proceeded accordingly. I can remember the old days my editor was very firm about not mixing science fiction and fantasy. He’s probably turning over in his grave at this point, given the fact that the two are engaged in a mating ritual that is game changing.
What I am seeing and finding to be a healthy shift in books and book-selling is the way it is becoming harder and harder to give a single word to characterize a book. Is it literary or genre fiction? Is it a mystery, a fantasy, a romance, a western, a horror story and easily explained as such? Or is it a hybrid of one or more types. Most authors I know don’t like to see their work described as being all of one type or another. Most think of their work in broader terms – ether as a mix of (fill in the blanks) or as simply a good (don’t fill in the blank) story.
I’ve never thought of what I write as simply fantasy. Why would I do that? Not that I have anything against thinking of my work as fantasy, but what abut the fact that it has elements of mystery, romance, science fiction and horror? Am I supposed to discount all that when the books depend on so much of it? I usually say one of two things, depending on the reaction I am looking for. I say, “I write nonfiction about Elves” or “I write fantasy adventure stories.”
So this is happening a lot these days. Here are a two examples of books that I am either reading or have just finished reading that illustrate the surge in diversity in types of books.
BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF by Marlon James.
Marlon would be seen by most as a literary writer – meaning his style, word usage and imagery is amazing. But also, he has never written the same thing twice – another characteristic attributed to literary writers. Judine and I heard him speak the other night at the Seattle Public Library downtown. A charming, fascinating and dedicate craftsman who comes across as someone you might like to sit down and share coffee with.
What this current book does is – in very simplistic terms – rework Lord of the Rings and a few other classic fantasy tales – using African mythology and legends. This mix seems as if it would never work, but work it does. He is bawdy and raw and bloody by turns; he does not spare your feelings or your expectations. But he does tell a hell of a good yarn in a book that is neither wholly identifiable as animal, mineral nor vegetable, but some of each.
Full disclosure. At one point during the Q & A, Mr. James spoke about his connection to his readers. He said he did not believe it was up to him to make the story he was telling understandable for his readers; it was up to his readers to figure out for themselves what he was writing about. How badly I wanted to leap to my feet and shout, “I’ve been saying this for years!” A writer needs to give readers the opportunity to use their imaginations to make the story personal, to make it their own. Don’t give readers a clear path; point them to the trailhead and let them find their own way.
My second example. GOLDEN STATE by Ben H. Winters.
I am just finishing this one, and as I reach the last 50 pages I am discovering that everything I thought was going to happen and everything Mr. Winters suggested was true is a myth. He turns everything on its head just like that, and now I am swimming for the shore I was led to believe was there earlier with little hope of reaching it. This is a futuristic thriller from a writer who many consider literary, and who is giving us another version of Brave New World. He is a wordsmith of great skill but a trickster, as well. We have a new reality, new science, new tropes on the existence of our race and God Knows what else he has in store.
But here we are again, another book in which it is hard to define what it is in terms of marketing and placement in a bookstore. I just love it. It makes us work a bit to find the book and make the determination for ourselves. I always tell those trying to write a book and asking for advice that if you want to become a better craftsman and improve your continuing education as a fiction writer, you have to read outside the field in which you are writing. You have to find how other writers write other sorts of books than the ones you write. If I had only read fantasy in the last forty years, how much I would have missed.
Full disclosure. I read Mr. Winter’s Underground Airline earlier and could not stop thinking about it for weeks. Good writers do that for you. When his new book came on the market, I did not stop to consider for one moment what it might be about before buying it.
There are many more writers of fiction, both adult and YA, who are stretching the boundaries. I applaud and encourage their efforts. We need to change, we need to expand out horizons, and we need to be challenged. How exciting it is when we do.
Let’s make that effort in the coming year. Read something you hadn’t thought you would ever read. Search it out however you search out the books you read, but get outside your comfort zone and experience something new. I resist almost every time it is suggested or I am seduced to do so, but when I give in to it I am almost never disappointed. Have at it, readers. See you down the road.