April 20, 2011

Sci-Fi authors unite against genre snobbery


UK science fiction author Stephen Hunt is proud to call himself a ‘genre’ author. Since the launch of World Book Night last month, he has spearheaded a campaign heavily criticising WBN and the BBC for the lack of inclusion of more commercial fiction in the event. In a recent blog post, he labelled the tone of the programming as sneering, and lamented ‘its narrow focus on a single genre’ — of the 25 books featured in WBN, Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights was the only fantasy title, and the majority of the remainder were so-called ‘literary’ fiction titles.

Hunt’s wrath was particularly stirred up by a recent BBC program entitled, ‘The Books We Really Read’, hosted by comedienne and former Booker Prize judge Sue Perkins. As he perceived it:

‘she never normally reads any of our lowbrow genre tripe (although she might, you know, give it a whirl now, just for the sake of World Book Night)… Fantasy was not mentioned once during the Perkins farce, fantasy, the very mother root of literature, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling and Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville and Michael Moorcock all stuffed inside CS Lewis‘s wardrobe, the better not to be seen.’

Hunt has written a letter of protest signed by 85 other ‘genre’ authors so far, including Iain M. Banks, Steven Erikson and Neal Asher (the full list can be found here). The labels ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ are pretty slippery and elusive, and the lines between them are definitely not always clearly defined, however there does seem to have been an oversight in the choice of books. Hunt asserts that sci-fi, fantasy and horror in fact make up 20-30% of book sales.

The shunning of genre fiction isn’t exactly a new revelation, and having worked as a Bookseller for a sci-fi and graphic novels specialist, it’s been on my radar for several years. As a student, I even used to feel a little sheepish admitting to my more discerning peers that, yes, one of my favorite authors is Stephen King. Of course, literary and genre fiction both have value, and it’s also worth mentioning that as with all fiction, some of it is good, and some of it is terrible.

David Barnett in a commentary at Guardian Books has offered a counterpoint to Hunt’s campaign by pointing out that the BBC has a long history of producing wonderful science fiction programming, including Misfits, Life on Mars and of course, Doctor Who. Hopefully next year’s WBN will redress the balance. However, if in the meantime you should feel the need to check out some excellent sci-fi, allow me to point you towards a Melville House steampunk extravaganza: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama is the perfect cocktail of a literary adventure novel that combines suspense, science fiction, romance and history. What more could you need?