The OF Blog: Do SF/F authors have to be SF/F fans in order to be good writers?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Do SF/F authors have to be SF/F fans in order to be good writers?

It's funny how small townish certain things can be. Speculative Horizons rants about comments made around a year ago by David Bilsborough in an interview on Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Gabe Chouinard reads this rant about a week later and opines about deficiencies in the SH rant, which of course leads to this rebuttal of sorts, followed by discussion on the SF Site's forums. Sounds almost like the SF blogosphere version of which cousin is screwing someone's other cousin, doesn't it?

But buried in all that is an interesting question: Do SF/F authors have to be SF/F fans in order to be good writers?

This of course is predicated on a few things. By "science fiction" or "fantasy," are we referring to 1:1 correlations of say epic fantasy writers with epic fantasy fandom? Or can we have, as in the case of a China Miéville or a Michael Moorcock, to name but two of numerous examples, of writers who are well aware of a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien but who think that those authors' works are weak, deficient, turgid, filled with nonsense and/or dangerously reactionary ideals, etc. Something tells me that those two authors didn't have to be "fans" in order to write some interesting and compelling fantasy stories based on what influenced them, not on the ossified examples of Lewis or Tolkien.

Yes, often an author needs to have some awareness of the genre in which he or she is writing. However, being a "fan" can be as much of a detraction as an advantage. If a writer is so immersed in his/her fannishness that there isn't an honest look at what deficiencies might exist in his/her chosen form, then what point is it to write in a field if only the same formulae, the same mistakes are copied by rote regurgitation? Would it not be better if an author who is perturbed by said perceived weaknesses decided to explore things, push boundaries, or perhaps (to be a bit blunt) decide to "fuck some shit up"? After all, James Fennimore Cooper did pretty much this when he got frustrated at reading a then-popular author's rather wretched frontier novel. Last of the Mohicans was the result of that non-fan's writing.

While doubtless some will make the argument that this is the exception that proves the rule, I am not so certain. I think it is a rather naive presumption that only those who have immersed themselves in reading hundreds of (epic, since that's the subgenre implied in the SH post) fantasy books can have something to say. After all, some of the more acclaimed writers writing today have utilized diverse genre influences to create something that is more sui generis than the presumed majority of say epic fantasists who read and write within narrow bounds. Does "fandom" have to equate with an almost obsessive reading and then writing in one field? I certainly would hope not.

But perhaps there are other ways of looking at this. All I know is that it seems rather confining to argue that authors ought to be "fans" if they want to write something great within X genre.


Liviu said...

The short answer is of course not but you run the risk of reinventing the wheel; if you write great prose or very interesting stuff it does not matter, but if you write crappy one - like IMHO D. Bilsborough - then the flack you get for your arrogant and pompous comments is well deserved.

Larry Nolen said...

That's what I gathered about Bilsborough - his writing couldn't cash the checks his mouth apparently wrote. But then there's Miéville, who in 2000 famously called Tolkien the "wen on the arse of fantasy," but his writing ability allowed him to prove to many that there were more than one way to skin a cat or to write a fantasy novel.

Liviu said...

Well let us not compare a tremendous talent with a hack...

When you write masterpieces like PSS and The Scar you are entitled to say a lot of things. When you write junk, it may sell but it's still junk

I read books that I know are junk, but entertaining or addictive junk, not boring like in the case of D. Billsborough, but I would not take seriously their author in pronouncements about genre...

Larry Nolen said...

But you know some might argue that one man's junk is another man's treasure, right? :P I'm just merely noting that if one has the talent, one can be excused for many things.

Mark Newton said...

The thing is with China, he actively declared he was in this for the monsters. He argued a love of the genre, gave examples, and explained where there were, in his mind, some problems that needed looking at. There was no, in common parlance, "OMG I HATE FANTASIEZ"

Bilsborough didn't exactly come out in support of the genre... which is perhaps why he received such a negative response. Plus he never really articulated his response in a way that suggested he was aware of the market. His claim of "a fair few" fantasy books could mean, what, a handful of fighting fantasy, choose your own adventures? :-)

James said...

I think it's fair to say that I wasn't quite expecting the reaction that my post got when I originally made it... ;)

I feel I ought to just clarify something: I didn't mean to give the impression that I have the right to harp on about the genre just because of the amount of books I've read. My point was actually the opposite: that despite being reasonably well-read I'm still cautious when it comes to airing my views, as I don't want to sound like an ego-tripper. Bilsborough on the other hand doesn't appear to be particularly well read in the genre, yet he's quite happy to slate fantasy as being undeserving of respect. That just seemed rather foolish to me.

Still, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe Bilsborough has read every epic fantasy out there. Unfortunately we'll probably never know, at least not until he overcomes his apparent disgust for the internet (and the gullible fools that use it, or whatever term he used to that effect).



Larry Nolen said...


While I'm not denying that Bilsborough came off as being rather disdainful at times in that interview, I still think he might have had a valid angle for approaching the writing of some form of fantasy novel (that of wanting to write something "worthwhile," which is why I mentioned Cooper's impetus for writing Last of the Mohicans). Unfortunately for him, he apparently didn't have the writing chops necessary to back up his bold words. China I agree has a love for what he does; he just doesn't have a love for a particular subgenre of fantasy and if I'm not mistaken, he satirizes heroic quest adventurers in a scene in PSS.


As is often the case, one thread sparks ideas with another, leading a third later on to carry on from there. But as to what you say here, it never really is a matter of X number of books read; it's what one does with the ones he/she has read. There are those history buffs who've read hundreds of secondary source histories on Adolf Hitler, for example, but in most cases, I doubt most of those would match my expertise in the primary sources of the period. I'm not saying this to talk myself up (after all, I earned my MA over 10 years ago and have promptly become quite unfamiliar with the latest sources emerging in my grad area of cultural/religious history of the late Weimar/early Nazi eras :P), but rather to note that it takes much more than just reading a lot of books.

It takes someone willing to push, prod, pull, discard, and create something from the mishmash of influences while all the time creating something that isn't overly derivative. Being a "fan" isn't always a help; nor is it always a hindrance. I believe it takes a writer being willing to explore and to dare to create something different for that writer to be successful.

Jonathan M said...

I think that writing out of a hatred of a genre's status quo can be incredibly healthy.

Cyberpunk and the New Wave were reactions against the remnants of golden age SF. ASOIAF was written by someone who wanted to do epic fantasy correctly.

And that's without mentioning works like The Road, which are great works of genre without necessarily drawing that heavily from what has gone before.

I think hating the state of the genre can be a really great inspiration for writing something new and it can be a real catalyst for change.

Of course if you're slagging off the state of the genre while producing books that fail to add to it then hoisting and petards start to loom into view.

Joe Abercrombie said...

I hope you're not cussing off the whole fighting fantasy, choose your own adventure sub-genre in an offhand way based on a shallow acquaintance with the form. Just how many such books have you played through thoroughly, I'd like to know? Steve Jackson's Sorcery series remain seminal works of fantasy that influence writers right up to the present day.

As for the rest, every writer will have their own mixture of different influences from all kinds of different sources. It's how you mix the ingredients that counts. The proof is in the pudding, really, and further complicated by the undoubted fact that every reader has a different opinion about pudding.

We can probably agree that if Bilsborough's aim was to endear himself to the internet fantasy community he has not played a blinder, but, as people have observed, the objection is more that folks don't like his pudding. For myself, I get a bit tired of arguments that seem to treat fantasy as some kind of homogenous blob that you're either for or against, that you either somehow know well enough or don't. Very few people who read at all will have no familiarity with fantasy. If I used to read loads of commercial 80s fantasy but then stopped and haven't read any recently, am I qualified? If I've read Martin, Erikson, Lynch and Bakker, but not Vance, Zelazny, Dunsany, and Robert E. Howard am I qualified? There's no right answer on what you should read or the approach you need to take as a writer. The notion that if you don't read loads of fantasy you somehow risk repeating stuff seems absurd to me. After all, no one's read everything, right?

Mark Newton said...

Joe: Nope - I read about ten of 'em, worked with a guy who wrote many more such books. (Of course, they all fall short of the excellence of the TV series KNIGHTMARE. Worked through four of the books from that series.) And I work for Games Workshop - which should slap down an accusations of me not being fully paid up to the scene. :-)

Mark Newton said...

Should add to that, to put the context back, that if he's read a few adventure books and thinks it a neat summary of a vast and wide genre freely enough for him to dismiss so succinctly, than Bilsborough wasn't thinking right. Or possibly at all.

Mihai A. said...

Well, I don't think that it is a necessary condition. They can write in a genre without reading it at all as long as they write their works well and maybe come up with something inovative. Also they can express any opinion they have, after all we believe that we live in free countries, we all have opinions, but I believe that we have to explain them properly (Mieville included).
But to insult a great range of readers is insane and rude. Why did you start writing in that genre after all, just because that readers are dumb and will buy anything? Well, that is totally wrong and I would not mind if he will not sell another book. Maybe that will teach him a lesson.

Joe said...

I don't have too much of a problem if he thinks that fantasy is shit and that he wants to write something better, so long as his shit don't stink, too.

Dan Simmons seems to come off as suggesting that anyone not reading the classics is a fucking moron (my interpretation, not his words), but Hyperion and Ilium are several kinds of awesome and hyper-literate. I'm not sure I care if Simmons reads a lick in SFF or if he thinks that every single SFF writer before and after him is a talentless hack so long as he writes damn fine books.

So, if Bilsborough's book sucks I'll be done with him. It just won't over anything he has said. It'll be for sucking ass through a garden hose.

Gabe said...

As I pointed out on my blog, there are a hell of a lot of authors rightly regarded as classics who came at creating fantasy with *no* "genre tradition" informing them.

RobB said...

"Do SF/F authors have to be SF/F fans in order to be good writers?"

Obviously, no. But neither do they need to spit on the fans they are trying to impress. Or another wording: the proprietor shouldn't be spitting on his/her potential customers. As others have pointed out, this is the source of a lot of "our" venom.

I found it funny that Gordon Van Gelder pointed out that Billsborough couldn't even get the writer whom he read correct.

A couple of things about Mieville (and Moorcock) that didn't bother people as much. Moorcock has been writing for a while; successfully. Both he and Mieville were pointing at a specific writer (granted an esteemed one) rather than an entire set of authors. That, I think, made their points easier to swallow if not like or agreeable.

As for Eddison, Tolkien, et al working from a non-genre tradition - they were still working from a sort of tradition - legends and myths that predate their writing. Again, the publishing landscape is a lot different now then it was 15 years ago, let alone 50+ years ago. There wasn't this connectivity between writer-publisher-reader that exists today.

Anonymous said...

"I think that writing out of a hatred of a genre's status quo can be incredibly healthy.

Cyberpunk and the New Wave were reactions against the remnants of golden age SF. ASOIAF was written by someone who wanted to do epic fantasy correctly."

In the case of Ice and Fire, I'm not sure I would equate Martin's desire to "do epic fantasy correctly" (i.e. write an epic story his way) as a hatred of an established status quo. Given his views on several of the bigger epic names like Hobb, Williams, and Jordan, I'd say that Martin doesn't want to "correct" epic fantasy as much as he wants to contribute something that is different without entirely subverting the established form.

Of course, that's not to say that actual hatred of a form or style can't lead to a new work of genius. For the sake of specificity, though, I don't think a "changing of the guard" type of style should automatically be assumed to stem from an author motivated by severe dislike or disrespect of what came before or what continues to maintain broad strokes of appeal.

- Zach H.

Larry Nolen said...

Joe A.,

Seems like you and I have similar attitudes on it. There are certain fantasy "areas" that I have little to no interest in exploring, but that doesn't mean I'm not qualified to talk about the other areas which do interest me.

Joe S.,

Interesting point about Simmons. Even when his personal politics threatens to aggravate me too much, he goes and writes something that makes me admire the work, if not the writer's ideals.

Everyone else,

Good points, even if a few I might quibble about. Seems that we're pretty much in agreement that being aware of a field is good and being too involved in it could lead to mixed to poor results on occasion?

Mark Newton said...

"being too involved in it could lead to mixed to poor results on occasion"

How do you link the 'involvements' with 'results'?

I would say that GRRM is extremely involved in fandom, and is thought of having a consistently good output.

Then again, anything can potentially lead to mixed to poor results, surely? One might say a writer who diets on only cheeseburgers could have mixed to poor results in his writing output - and look for a conclusion where there isn't one. No cheeseburgers for new authors! A very hazy territory, that...

Larry Nolen said...

By "too involved," I meant writing story elements intended to please like-minded hypothetical readers. Sometimes, "geeking out" can lead to those who don't get the "geek" stuff tuning out the rest of the story. Other times, the "geek" elements can overwhelm the mechanics of a story.

To put it in a very concrete form, a lot of WoT fans have expressed worries over Brandon Sanderson's "fannish" moments on his blog when he discussed his recent re-read of the series before he began the cobbling together of the final volume. Many of the concerns centered around the possibility that Sanderson would prove to be such a fan as to overemphasize certain scenes just because he liked one character as a fan, while neglecting others as a result.

Another example of the possible pitfalls of being a "fan" writing a work is that the story doesn't "evolve" on its own or the characters aren't allowed to "breathe," because the writer is so caught up in following forms and tropes that he/she doesn't dare push things forward enough in the prose. Those are the potential concerns about "fans" being writers. I like the notion of writers having a bit of doubt about things and taking that doubt and pushing through it, seeing what can be accomplished that doesn't have to follow another's blazed trail 90% of the way.

Mark Newton said...

"Another example of the possible pitfalls of being a "fan" writing a work is that the story doesn't "evolve" on its own or the characters aren't allowed to "breathe," because the writer is so caught up in following forms and tropes that he/she doesn't dare push things forward enough in the prose."

I think the assumption here is that you're either a "fan" OR someone who wants to push things forward. That you can't be both. Another assumption that a "fan's" reading is exclusively in genre, and therefore that they are limiting themselves. What about the writers who can play with the fans as well as giving a coherent story. China Miéville does so with his politics and entertainment.

I believe comics (even though I'm limited in this genre) serve the knowledge that fans possess, as well as let characters reinvent themselves and "breathe" in totally new ways. Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" being an example, perhaps?

I'm nodding my head to the most of what you say - and can certainly see those limitations you put forward - but it's this black or white focus that I'm not in agreement with. I think you can be a fan and also be aware of the wider picture.

Larry Nolen said...


I do agree with your counterpoint, except I would argue that my focus was on those cases where "fannish" authors are not careful, etc. - it is something that I'll admit can happen to those who have a more critical take on the genre. I don't think we disagree as much as we're pointing out different facets - agree?

Mark Newton said...


Larry Nolen said...

Now that being said, can we agree on the awesomeness that is professional wrestling? :P

Mark Newton said...

I dunno... Sounds like you're especially "fannish" about it... ;)

Larry Nolen said...

Perhaps, but I can see the perceived flaws in the presentation and wish to explore other formats on how to develop the caliber of the pro wrestlers and their movesets ;)

RobB said...

can we agree on the awesomeness that is professional wrestling?

If you're not down with THAT, I've got two words for ya!

Larry Nolen said...

Suck it! :P

Or if you ain't Down with the Brown...D-Lo is back!

I guess my open secret is out, huh? ;)

Anonymous said...

I really should read my RSS feed more often as I always seem to come in at the end of these things...

Anyway, Bilsborough annoyed me by seemingly to dismiss what had come out before and then writing something that I'd expect a five year old to write after seeing Lord of Rings. Well that's not fair to the five year old but he managed to produce something that was not only badly written but seemingly a pale imitation of much better writers.

Does a writer need to be fan? No. Does he have to have some concious or subconscious understanding of conventions. Yes.

Not because he might end up in re-writing the wheel but because he either wants to do something that he's not seen done or that he has seen and thinks he can do much much better.

Fantasy is a cliched, narrow world, when you see the centre ground as publishers, readers, and writers like the exploration that happens there. And there is nothing wrong with that. I love the same but differentness of lots of books.

But if you're going to break all that. Understand what you need to break and what you need to leave alone.

Otherwise you do end up with an unreadable mess.

Do writers need to be well read? Yes!! As in they have to have influences and reasons for writing and not just because they think that they can.

Readers like to feel safe in their choices and like familiarity. If you're going too far off the end of the scale only the select few are able to follow you and then you're in trouble.

Just my two cents.

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