The OF Blog: The New Myopia: Quick Thoughts on the Limitations of Genre Coverage

Monday, June 07, 2010

The New Myopia: Quick Thoughts on the Limitations of Genre Coverage

Earlier today, I wrote a post about my declining interest in forums.  In that short essay, I noted that part of the reason why I had become disenchanted with online forums dealt with the perceived "conservatism" of book coverage.  I want to elaborate a bit on this, utilizing a few recent online posts.  Mind you, I am not "calling out" anyone; their posts just happened to have been made recently and they underscore several of the problems that I have had with what I jokingly entitled "The New Myopia," playing off of the desires of some to delineate "new" forms of the same old topic material.

Take a look at this recent thread on SFF World entitled "Recent books that define the current territory of fantasy."  Let's see who is discussed here by the majority of the posters (it should be noted that there are a few who do not conform to the unspoken expectations within this thread):

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind - a 2007 secondary-world fantasy opener that is fairly decent, has its moments, but is little more than a good recent example of older works of the same vein.

R. Scott Bakker, The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor series - Bakker is a friend of mine, and while I do enjoy his erudite take on epic fantasy, his is not (as he'll readily admit) a story that's going to have mass appeal outside of certain gender/age demographics and online forums.

Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont, Malazan books - Although each has some interesting anthropological perspectives that enrich their shared-world setting, I wouldn't think of these books as being anything more than just continuations from what Glen Cook, Jack Vance, or Michael Moorcock has done with their epic fantasy/sword and sorcery tales.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - how this is any different in tone or feel from several English rural fantasies of the past 130 years is beyond me.  I enjoyed this book, but it certainly is not groundbreaking in any sort.  It continues a long tradition quite nicely, though.

Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files - closest thing to "urban fantasy" that I saw, but this is more in the vein of investigative novels that have a nice formulaic approach.  Nothing spectacular, just a series of pleasant reads.

The list goes on and on, with only two posters making anything in the way of attempting to cover other facets of contemporary genre writing.  A similar thread, "Fantasy - 10 years from now," also treds much the same ground and ignores much that is able.

Another list, this one provided by a visible SF blogger, Adam Whitehead/Werthead, was pointed out to me today by author Mark Charan Newton.  Within a limited (OK, very narrow) ground, he covers well certain writers writing in what he notes some have called "The New Fantasy."  Adam notes the limitations of the term and how it does exclude other subgenres of fantasy writing, but it is interesting that in covering this perceived grouping of authors based on a few superficial characteristics, that he covers authors that either do not have a huge profile in the United States, or who are lumped in with certain others only because they've written excellent new work recently, or who have stories that appeal to him.  It is odd seeing a list that has Steph Swainston, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Joe Abercrombie being part of a common grouping.  Their narrative styles, their storytelling modes, and the way their characters and plots are presented differ wildly.  On closer examination, there really doesn't seem to be any strong argument being made justifying such a classification, especially since there is really no proof evident (either in this link or in numerous posts I've read online, whether they be blogs or fora) of these "new fantasy" stories doing anything in terms of style, mode, or presentation that weren't done decades or even a century or two ago.

But beyond these attempts to reclassify newer fictions into their own "movement" or grouping lies a glaring silence.  Where are the other subgenres?  How come there is, relatively speaking, very little to no discussion of the long traditions of "weird" or "fantastical" fiction?  Where are the magic realists or those who write "urban fantasies" set in cities or those paranormal romances that have taken Romance tropes and have melded them with speculative fiction ones?  While I readily admit that I am somewhat ignorant of paranormal romances in general, I do know there have been some interesting, albeit formulaic, tales constructed around modern-day, urban settings.  I've only read one graphic novel adaptation of Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson tales, but what I read combined Native American myths involving the coyote, werewolves, and investigative fiction into a pleasing harmonic whole.  Nothing spectacular, but certainly nothing offensive about it. 

I'm not a huge Charles de Lint fan, but his Newford tales have been very popular for two decades now, but yet there is little to no mention of them on several of the larger online venues and blogs.  Why is that?  Or what about those authors, such as Michal Ajvaz, Goran Petrović, David Albahari, or Zoran Živković, who have been influenced by Central European fiction of the sort written by Franz Kafka or Thomas Bernhard?  Those stories are certainly among the best fantasies (and general fictions) that I have read in the past few years.  Let they receive little coverage from those wanting to talk about "new fantasy."

There certainly is a lot in the wide-labeled field of Fantasy.  It is easy to understand why many would choose to concentrate on a particular area.  But it also seems to be a shame to see these limitations, especially when several feel the need to compose "Best of Year" lists every December.  Too often, these read like a "best of this one tiny sliver of the field, the only one I bothered to read much in this year."  This is not a sin, but rather a common oversight.  I too sometimes overlook certain subgenres, but at least I do try to keep abreast of what is considered to be "good" there.  If large blogs and online fora are considered to be trendsetters, is the trend that of usurping the title for a wide-ranging field and applying it to a very narrow, often conservative section?  Myopia, neither new nor old, still rules so much today.


Jonathan M said...

Seriously dude, what did you expect?

Larry said...

I know, I know...but sometimes, blogging about the obvious does help lead to a few re-evaluations, or so one could hope. Not that I'll ever approach This is Water in my essays, though.

Bill said...

One of the reasons, (and come to think of it, I've mentioned to you before), that I follow this blog is because you do seem to have a wider view than others.

But the "popularist" blogs serve their function as well, because trends are important to note. Post after post raving about this-or-that new author gets me to consider picking up their material.

Those things noted, as an UNPUB, I do like to see what's happening outside of the popular trends. I want to see where my work will fall, when people go to compare (they always do).

I think it's unfortunate that we need to have any lists at all, truly. A blogger should be able to survive without trying to niche the all of speculative fiction and be able to do more "Hey, this is what I like." and less "I am the authority on this subject."

I'd like to see less of the stats, the navel-gazing, the lists, the mailbox boasting - and more of what you do, which is, read and express the work's relative impact from your perspective.

At the same time, eh, I'm not an expert on anything but my own WIP, so it's all good. People vote with their feet (or in this case, their clicks).

Anonymous said...

China Mieville is one of my favorite epic fantasists. Steven Erikson is one of my favorite writers of weird city fiction.

Funny how that stuff works out sometimes.

- Zach H.

The Witchfinder said...

It's easy to cover a wide field when you read 400 books a year, isn't it?

Harry Markov said...

If the majority of people could read up to 400 novels per year and could do so in multiple languages, then I am sure that this situation wouldn't be like this. But you and your squirrel army are ahead of your time. People are doing what they can on the basis of what they have experienced and compared to your experience, well of course it will be a sliver.

Now I am not saying that you are wrong. You are possibly right, but mortal people can't keep up with you.

Jonathan M said...

I think this post was about Larry, not about the forums.

For me, it really is no surprise that a group of online communities set up to cater to the fans of commercial, mainstream epic fantasy should then choose to see the genre both going backwards and forwards in precisely those terms. That's what those communities are FOR. That's why the posters are there.

Larry, there may have been a time when you felt at home in that kind of environment but I think as you have come to invest more of your sense of self in wider reading, the boundaries of a community that is all about mainstream commercial fantasy are going to start chafing you.

This isn't about myopia, it's about your feelings of alienation from a sub-culture you have, for a long time, considered yourself a part of. I'm not in the least bit surprised that you're spending less and less time on forums. You've outgrown them.

That's not a criticism of the forums in any way, while my own history with them is not a particularly fond one I can see that they do serve as the basis for a community at a time in our collective social history when it is very easy to feel alone and isolated.

Yes, it would be great if the forums read more widely. It would have been great if more people in our highschools had enjoyed the stuff we enjoyed. It would have been great if those ex-girlfriends saw things the way we saw them.

I feel alienated at times too.

Personally, I used to hang out on RPGnet. I did so for YEARS. But over time, it became increasingly clear that the values of the forum were not mine and the tastes of the forum were not mine either. Now, when I pop my head round the door, I feel bad such is the gulf between my tastes in gaming (let alone art and fiction) and those of the forums. So I don't go there anymore... I've outgrown them.

Even in meatspace I had the same experience. I broke up with my gaming group about a year or so ago because essentially we were making each other miserable because our tastes were increasingly diverging and members of the group were becoming increasingly intransigent and bitter about letting other people 'have their go'. So now I don't game with them any more. It took me MONTHS to get over that stuff.

But I move forward.

There are communities out there that are more closely aligned to my tastes and values. Like in Snow Crash. I just have to pick-up my skateboard and hitch a ride to the next enclave.

You've built a nice little community around yourself because your enthusiasms are infectious and your brainspace is an ornate and pretty place.

It's sad that you no longer feel at home in the online fantasy communities but if you look at it in terms of personal and aesthetic growth it's an opportunity for discovering cool new people rather than being annoyed at the 'myopia' of the people who have failed to move on with you.

These things happen :-)

Larry said...


Good points, including several I hadn't considered until you made them. Yes, some of my frustration is doubtless tied to the ties that restrain, while another part is that decades-long sense that there is something I'm missing that's just around the corner and yet so little light is given on what could be missing.

As for forums/-a, I think I came to them at a relatively late age (26, almost 10 years ago) and that there's never been that "comfort stage." I probably have, in some senses, "outgrown" them, but I also may just be reverting back to my reading patterns of 10-15 years ago and wanting more of that as well.

But for those talking about how much I read, the quantity doesn't matter here. It's the variety that concerns me. And I suspect from time to time that I'm missing some wonderful reads due to my own biases and ignorance. It is easy to find things that confirm one's opinions, but damn difficult to confront other possibilities.

Roland said...

Well, Larry, that's why I come here. To be inspired by your texts and finding new writers I never would have read otherwise (but still stay somewhat within the SFF sphere).

I just read 100 Years of Solitude thanks to you, and you've also opened my eyes to Zoran Zivcovic and Minister Faust recently.

And the quantity definitely matters! To you, reading a book seem to be a commitment of a few hours at the most. If you average a book a day during a year, no wonder you can spread out and try new stuff.
I read 20-30 pages per hour in English (not my native language) which is roughly a tenth of your speed. A book takes me a week to read and that's if I actually take the time to read that week.
On my to-read list right now I have about 100 books (of which I've already bought 40 or so). That's enough to keep me busy for years, not to mention if I discover some new writers in the meantime.

If there is something that bothers me with the forums, it's repetitive topics. People never seem to tire of discussing if Jordan is a sell-out and how awful Goodkinds books are... :)

Adam Whitehead said...

In fairness, the list was a response to a request in another thread specifically asking about recent fantasy writers working in the secondary/epic field from someone who had not read in the subgenre for some considerable time and wanted to see what works were out there. That's why the list is on that one particular forum and not as a blog entry for wider consumption.

Putting it together under the meaningless banner of the 'new fantasy' was a useful title for constructing the list since, as I note, the term can only purely be applied to a chronological period of arguable length (I eventually settled for about ten years) since I have seen authors from vastly different fields put together. The only unifying feature was the secondary world/epic fantasy approach (which is why Mieville got limited coverage, as his three most recent novels do not fall into this category). It was certainly not some attempt to create some master list of important spec fic writers of the last ten years, as such a list would be as you say myopic and still limited even if I expanded it to incorporate SF, horror, urban/dark fantasy and so on.

Martin said...

It's easy to cover a wide field when you read 400 books a year, isn't it?

I think this point (which Harry Markov makes too) is bullshit, I'm afraid. I'm not a particularly fast reader and I probably only manage 50 books a year but I don't think that stops me from covering a wide territory. It is the conscious choices people make (or rather don't make) that keeps their horizons narrow, not anything as mechanistic as reading speed.

James said...

I read sixty books last year and by the end of this year the amount of books I will have read will fall considerably short of that figure. However, despite my meager anthill of a total (compared to Larry's mountain), I still manage to read widely (though not as widely as others in this thread, admittedly, but I am working on that). Odd.

Martin is spot on. I read widely because I make a point to do so and act on it, not because I read a lot of books.

Harry Markov said...

@ Martin & @ James:

Yes. I agree with you guys that the amount of books read don't mean anything as far as diversity goes. You can read 5-6 books and they can be all from different genres and countries. That's a clarification I did not make, for which I am more or less a twit.

However, given Larry's unique reading speed, isn't it obvious that he has the opportunity to explore more, read in a greater variety of genres and experience more authors from different backgrounds, cultures and languages. Even if the average reader reads diversely, s/he is nowhere near Larry.

I think that the amount that he reads along with his conscious choice to read diversely made him outgrow the forums and see that they do not cover the breadth of what genre fiction has to offer.

RobB said...

Hi Larry,

These lasts couple of posts have echoed some of my own inner dialogue, have me thinking more about my own reading patterns, and my experience at the forums you've been mentioning. Of course being a moderator/ administrator at one of them might make me a bit biased, but I've been more of an observer than a participant as of late.

As this relates to my own reading in recent years, I often do go over my recent reads in my head and wonder if I have fallen into, lack of a better word, a rut of reading the same type of story. But then I ask myself, ultimately, am I trying to prove something to somebody by what I'm reading and enjoying? After all, the reading experience is ultimately mine and for my own enjoyment, right?

This year may be an exception of more diverse reading since I'm going through a Wheel of Time re-read, but I've gone up and down with my reading patterns. Generally, although my reading is myopic in terms of sticking mainly with F/SF/H, I try (but don't always succeed) in reading as diverse a group from the genres as possible though I admit a favoritism towards the Epic slant of fantasy. This also dovetails with going back to older/classic books and reading primarily newer books (1-2 years old).

I guess part of my question in response to you is having a somewhat myopic view necessarily a bad thing?

Neth said...

ahh Larry, Larry, Larry...

Let's see, didn't you post the message board equivalent of this topic about once every 4 or 5 months over at Wotmania? I'm sure there are probably a dozen like it out there. Now do we get to read them on the blog too :P

Anyway, as with everything, it comes down to personal taste and the like. You want to read a wide range of books, you don't want a myopic lense to look through. And you wish more people were like you and that the intranets were as well. That's great - it's human.

Of course there are plenty of people who really want that myopic lense to read through. They know what they like and want more of it. They put up with enough shit in real life that they just want a book that makes them happy. And that's great too - just different from you.

Personally, I don't think most review bloggers think about or care about a myopic view point. They do their thing (whether that's read and review as much as possible or simply talking about the books they read). Some read more diversely, some less so. Some specialize and some don't. The wonderful democratic nature of it all means people can pick and choose what they want - and that is a great thing. Sure, I'm a strong believer that a bit of self-introspection is a good thing, expanding my horizons is good, and getting beyond my comfort zone is good. But that's how I feel, and if someone feels different, I'm not going to tell they're wrong for it.

Anyway, do you really want the intranets to be so much more like you? What makes your blog so great is that you stand a bit apart from the SFF review blogger scene. You're a bit of a check, a different perspective. And that is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

The myopia I dislike the most is that which focuses in only on SF/F/H imprints to find books to read and review. There's a wealth of worthy material being published outside of that framework, including translations. No one should be told what to read or not read, but everyone should be aware of the possibilities of *where* to look.


Larry said...

Amen, Jeff, Amen. I do have plans of reviewing an Argentine and a Serbian writer in the next couple of days, each with stories that are oddly related to one another.

As for the other comments, all I can say is that I'm never really satisfied with what I've discovered, so I try to make each month at least an exploration of what might be out there. Still miss some spots, but at least I try to go outside the category SF/F box.

Oh, and let me say once again that it's a criminal shame that Goran Petrović is not available in English. At least he's available in Spanish. I must do a better job promoting these worthy authors so some publisher will take a chance and pay for the translation and rights fees. If I had the time, I would love to do this myself, but it would take years for me to translate these stories well. Sigh.

Heather Massey said...

Surfing in from SF Signal...

Where are...those paranormal romances that have taken Romance tropes and have melded them with speculative fiction ones?

Will you marry me? I must say, reading that question was a delightful surprise. I didn't expect to see that at all!

At any rate, you're welcome to come aboard The Galaxy Express any time for adventures in science fiction romance. I cover everything from romantic SF to erotic SFR. Hard, soft, it's all good!

Derrick said...

I like what I like. I don't mind more of the same. In fact, I want more of the same.

Always glad to hear about other books from reviewers like you though. But to be honest, I like fantasy book critic better than you [in overall recommendations] because they focus on the stuff I want to read :-) you focus on what I want to read, along with quite a bit of other stuff.

sorry I'm late to the party. Life can be busy :-)

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