I knew she'd written a crime series using the pen name J.D. Robb. I heard a pile of recommendations for them. And when I was stricken with fell plague a week ago, I had a pile of them by my bed to comfort me in my illness.
SARAH: And now for an intricate mystery, starring tough cop Eve Dallas.
EVE DALLAS: This woman has been murdered by an antique weapon. A GUN.
SARAH: Wait what.
EVE DALLAS: I hope none of my witnesses are off-planet.
SARAH: What is going on?
EVE DALLAS: Ah, robot cocker spaniels.
SARAH: Robot cocker spaniels, that tears it, this is sci-fi! Why did nobody ever tell me this series was sci-fi? This is so exciting! (reads them all)
Before I continue with my essay, I will say that I really like the In Death series! Eve Dallas's husband Roarke gets my goat a little, because he's very fetIrish. (This is a combination word of 'fetish' and 'Irish' I have just made up.) You know. Poetically handsome. Speaks the Gaelic. We speak Irish. I do not know how this myth got started. But this is a very common thing for American writers, so I do not blame Nora Roberts. (Call me, American writers! I will help you.) It is very nice to see a series that focuses on a married couple, though. And Eve herself, her sturdy assistant Delia Peabody, Peabody's fashionplate geek boyfriend McNab, Charles the gentleman of the night and Mavis the rock star are all extremely excellent. Plus there are mysteries that involve virtual reality, and clones, and all sorts of cool things!
Which leads me to my central point. I had no idea the In Death series had a sci-fi element. I do think they're in the right place in bookshops, where they are always under crime - they focus on crime solving! - but I do think it's weird I had no idea. I think it's weird I've never seen them put in the sci-fi/fantasy section, while Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden fantasy series (about a wizard PI) I've seen shelved in crime quite a bit.
And I think a reason may be the prejudice people hold against genre. I recently saw a dismissive reference to 'some sci-fi/fantasy/romance crap'. And those are the genres that do get the most contempt. People say they don't read that stuff proudly.
And yet, not only do people love that stuff (Harry Potter and Twilight, bestselling books of generation, and so forth) but people adore that stuff... when it's not called that stuff. The In Death books are just the tip of the iceberg.
Several Bestselling Literary Novels.
The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - I don't wish to shock anybody. But it's got time travel in it.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - Everybody said unto me: it's like nothing you've ever read before! It's got- Me: Clones in it. Being harvested for parts. Like Michael Marshall Smith's Spares. Sure! (Which is not to say you can't tell a story a lot of different ways, and have it be awesome. Never Let Me Go is awesome. But I like Spares, too.)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - Academics v Dracula!
I remember being at a literary festival and seeing someone approach an author, who writes literary fiction under the name Iain Banks and sci-fi under the name Iain M. Banks.
LADY: When are you going to write another book?
MR BANKS: Er... holds up his new sci-fi novel
LADY: I mean a real book.
I don't really remember what happened after that, I think I had some sort of rage blackout...
Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth is sold as teen fantasy in the US, adult fantasy in the UK and Ireland, and as adult literary fiction in Australia and New Zealand. It's always the same beautifully written book with zombies in it. But placing it is hard, because people might see fantasy and think it wasn't beautifully written. But it is, and it's something else as well.
There's a reason genre holds most of my favourite books. You can have all the wonderful things in other books, and then add extra awesome. Hating genre is like saying 'Oh, yes, I'd like a chocolate sundae. NO, WHY WOULD I WANT HOT FUDGE SAUCE AND SPRINKLES? CURSE YOUR SPRINKLES!'
More than that, genre seems to me to be a sign of what being human, and having an imagination, is all about. Speaking of a storyteller who heard a storm and thought of a thunder god, Tolkien said 'When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard.' (J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories) We come up with explanations for things. We look at this world and see marvels.
I learned that things look different by the light of a dragon’s fire. Ordinary things become extraordinary; common problems change shape and become either unusually interesting or utterly insignificant... You really see things, sometimes for the first time. And you don’t forget them when you close the book. That, of course, is what makes fantasy dangerous. Patricia C. Wrede, Letting the Dragons In
That's why stories like that call to us, I think. They're an essential part of being human. We hear thunder, and through telling stories, we see gods.
I'm not saying stop categorising books. For one thing, I like being able to go to the sci-fi/fantasy section in a bookshop, and know that is my kind of thing. But dismissing something that by any other name you'd think was an amazingly fantastic read - well, Shakespeare, who wrote about ghosts and witches, knew that wasn't a good idea. So do I.