Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.



Goodreads is on the whole one of my favourite web sites, because I’ve had a mania for keeping a record of the books I’ve read and want to read since I was about 11. Getting to do so online where I can see the covers of the books while I write about them and compare notes with friends and virtual acquaintances has been hours of endless fun. The one thing that truly irritates me about the site is its recommendations algorithm, which keeps recommending that I read Fifty Shades of Grey, presumably because I read Outlander and liked it, and read most of the Twilight series in a fit of depression and wish I hadn’t. (Hate reading is a thing. I was thrilled to discover recently that I was not the only person guilty of doing this, although by no means do I encourage it and I’ve done my best to avoid any such rabbit holes since. There is no point in wasting time on poorly written books.)

I usually rely on friends’ recommendations or actively browsing through bookshops to find new authors I want to read; I pretty much ignore the Goodreads recommendations altogether unless I’m looking for books on some obscure aspect of history, for which its algorithm is oddly useful. Back in January, however, it kept insisting I look at Amberlough, so I forgive it its other failings and promise to stop muttering profanities at it as long as it isn’t pushing Ravished by a Rake or some other such rubbish.

Most of my new books these days are either kindle books on sale or second-hand paper books in decent condition; occasionally I’ll find that I like something so much that I need the audiobook and a physical copy. Sometimes, however, a book just deserves to be read in a good-quality hardback edition. I couldn’t manage without my kindle for long, but there’s a pleasure in reading a well-designed physical book that an e-book can’t replicate. I spent a couple of days looking at that lovely cover and decided I wanted this one in hardback.

I haven’t finished it yet–I was waiting for a time when I knew I’d be able to spend hours at a time reading, and it’s been a hectic six weeks–but I finally got a couple of hours when I was clear-headed and not overwhelmed with other tasks, and read the first quarter in one sitting. It is as good as promised. It is not your typical fantasy: There are no dragons, no magical powers as yet, no prophecies or chosen ones, and the setting is an analogue of 1930s Berlin rather than Middle Earth. Donnelly does what I had hoped China Mieville would do in The City and The City, but where I found Mieville’s work disappointingly dry, she knocks it out of the park. She has created “an alien world, faithfully described,” and her characters are as vibrant as the world she builds. The detail is plentiful and lush without detracting from the pace of the story, which quickly becomes intense–Amberlough is as much a political thriller as a fantasy novel.

As much as I love the Tolkein tradition in fantasy, worlds full of magic and dragons and mysterious curses, it’s refreshing to see a new novel that owes more to Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and political thrillers like The Crying Game than to George R. R. Martin. Her characters aren’t struggling with moral dilemmas disguised as quests or having to learn how to manage unexpected supernatural powers; they’re dealing with conflicts that strike closer to home for most of us, such as how honest we are with those we love, how much hardship we’re willing to endure for a political or moral ideal, sexuality and gender identity, and how to make a living when the odds are stacked against us, albeit some of these challenges are on a grander scale for said characters than most of us will ever encounter. Given the current climate of our politics in the West, it feels much more pertinent to real life than most novels, let alone most fantasy, usually gets.

I’m actually glad I didn’t hear about the novel until late January, because waiting more than a month or so for it would have been deeply frustrating. When I was in Boston I went looking for a copy, thinking that I’d read it on the plane ride home; the very helpful woman at the counter explained that it hadn’t been released yet, but that she could order it for me. Then she looked back at the screen and said “oh, I think we need this book. This looks good.” Yes, you need this book. Preferably in its lovely hardback form.

Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

blooming orange rose