Monday, July 19, 2010

Success Does Not Mean You Failed Your Genre

My recent infatuation with short stories led to me to the library and ultimately to The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourteenth Annual Collection

I should have skipped straight to the stories, but I started with Terri Windling's summation of the year in fantasy, thinking to learn about books I might enjoy. Instead, I was treated to an insulting and irritating tone of superiority. Windling and I got off on the wrong foot when she states that "...fantasy...has made a solid comeback after too many years when all we saw were those endless Tolkien clones clogging the bestseller lists. ...[N]ow there are some fine alternatives for the serious fantasy reader." (emphasis mine)

In two sentences, she manages to insult me and the majority of her reader base as well as a good many of the authors in the genre she confesses to love. Here, she will shed light on the "real" fantasy novels that were released this year, the "serious" fantasy, books you might not find on your own, if left to fend for yourself among those brainless, pithy fantasy titles found at the top of the bestseller lists.

Her statement implies that those people who sold the most novels and celebrated the most fame did it by being hacks, not true fantasy writers. For how dare those people who dream up whole medieval worlds, build dynamic, fantastic stories that capture the attention and delight thousands of fans across a nation crowd out the real artists? How dare they write a novel of their take on a medieval world, one with their own unique characters and settings? This from the same woman who praises other, lesser-known novels and who selected countless short stories for this collection that are blatant, stated retellings of myths and fairy tales. Shouldn't these be stricken from the shelves with the "endless Tolkien clones," as being yet another in the endless myth and fairy tale clones?

To top it off, the authors had the audacity to write novels that made it to the bestseller lists, apparently nudging out all the better stories that Windling would have selected. Only, they didn't nudge anything out. These novels were sought out by readers across the nation, while those that made Windling's top twenty list simply weren't as popular. The underlying message here implies that these authors dared not only to sell epic fantasies, but they dared to sell a lot of them. They made money. Lots of money. A virtual artist sin.

But wait, there are still some stories left out there for us who are serious about fantasy. For those of us with refined, superior tastes, we still have a few options, a few authors who are still plugging along, producing "real" fantasy, even if it doesn't sell well. 

Her attitude cooled my excitement over the whole volume, but I tried not to let it bother me too much. After all, the authors whose works were selected didn't necessarily sit down at their desk and think, What will Terri Windling think is serious fantasy? 

I despise the idea that writers who become national bestsellers are suddenly less skilled, less artistic, and less creative than writers who struggle along and hope for the day Oprah selects them for her book club. Success does not make your writing bad, yet I've encountered this attitude time and again. People don't want to be caught reading genre fiction, especially not fantasy. It's somehow not as real, as important, or as good as literary fiction. It's frustrating to find this discrimination even within the fantasy genre. In what other career would you judge amassing a devoted following of people who appreciate your work to be a failure to your craft?


TikiBird said...

I haven't read the article, of course, but perhaps she meant that writing stories that are nearly similar to XYZ author/series to profit from the current trend in the genre stifles a writer's own creative expression--and that people who take imaginative writing seriously want fresh ideas?

Of course, the most awesome outcome would be imaginative writing that finds success, anyway! I'm not saying that having a book inspired by another creative work means it's not creative. It just depends on the book.

I guess everybody's got their own literary prejudices and preferences. For example, some readers won't read YA because they feel they've moved beyond the genre to more advanced work. ;)

Rebecca Chastain said...

Oh, TikiBird, you're far too kind to Windling, but I appreciate your open-hearted sentiment. Especially since you're also nice to those mysterious writers who are slightly prejudiced against YA novels.