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So, this all starts with someone being awesome on the internet. Nora Roberts, to be precise. I saw her talking on romance review websites, and very much admired how she was always dignified and expressed opinions I agreed with calmly and clearly. (One day I will always be a poised classy lady on the internet. Right now it's more of a monkey at a teaparty.) Now, I'd tried a few Nora Roberts books, and wasn't sure about them, but given Nora Roberts's intense coolness, I was pretty sure it was just a matter of finding the right books.

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.


( 155 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 6th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
I proudly admit to loving genre books. (And for some reason I categorise myself, and say I write gay erotica, when really there is very little erotic about any of it and it might be more accurate to say I write stories about people who subtextually probably like each other a bit and sometimes have adventures.)

I also had no idea that Nora Roberts was JD Robb.

Now what I actually hit 'reply' to say! For some strange reason, the people who teach Celticness and Irish Type Things in America (not counting, say, Harvard's Celtic Studies dept or something) are ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that the language is called Gaelic. I was taught that it was called Gaelic when I was, oh, ten. I think it is because Gailge sounds a bit like 'Gaelic'? These days I sort of feign confusion like I'm not sure whether they mean Scots Gaelic, or the entire family of Q-Celtic languages in general. Oh yes, people just LOVE talking to me. :p
May. 6th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
I know! It is the weirdest misconception in the world. But I am on a mission to correct everyone, one American at a time.

Ah, pen names. Some romance authors have like four, and that I admit I cannot keep up with, but I try!
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May. 6th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
Genre is totally the best.

Also, you.
May. 6th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
I like The Dresden Files. And I don't care who knows it.
May. 6th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC)
Loads of people do! And perhaps some who picked it up in the crime section, and I hope went on to read more fantasy because they found out it was awesome. ;)
May. 6th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC)
Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth is sold as teen fantasy in the US, adult fantasy in the UK and Ireland,

:raises hand:

It's on the teen shelves in London ...

:lowers hand and flees:
May. 6th, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
Well, category is a weird fluid thing: as I said, the Harry Dresden books can be on crime shelves or fantasy shelves. I've seen Forest of Hands and Teeth in both adult and teen sections, but I know it's marketed as adult fantasy by the publisher, like Kristin Cashore's books.
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May. 6th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
The Point Fantasy people... oh, the reason I found that book was because I picked it up and saw the cover with a busty princess, a dragon curled around her, and the caption 'A beautiful princess, a dangerously charming dragon' and thought 'WHY IS THIS IN THE CHILDREN'S SECTION?'

When I flicked through it and saw the dragon was a girl, I was very puzzled but intrigued. When I actually read it, I loved it, but did feel a bit cheated of lesbian dragons. Later I wrote a story starring some! Happy ending for all. I still wonder what Point Fantasy were thinking, though.
May. 6th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
I agree with this 100%. I will always remember a conversation with a lovely older man about what books you liked to read. I being an honest person said I mostly read fantasy. He was being polite, but you could tell he was thinking oh, fantasy, I bet she likes those Twilight books or something along those lines.

Then somehow Anne Rice came up, and he got all excited. He loved Anne Rice! Both the vampire and the witch books. The Witching Hour is one of his favorite books. He also read a lot of crime/mystery novels that had pretty heavy fantasy overtones, in the way of Mayan curses or whatever.

He was very nice so I didn't point out anything, but I was thinking all along, how in the world are vampires and witches not fantasy?

I also see a lot of people dismiss YA fiction in this way. Apparently it's not good fantasy if it doesn't have purple prose in it. Not that YA fantasy is free of the purple, but it's much less common / toned down most of the time.
May. 6th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC)
Sarah, I know you love the written word, but have you ever listened to the audio drama:

Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe.

I've not read J D Robb, but your description above reminds me of Ruby.

If you go to Amazon and read some of the people's impressions, you may see what I mean. I think Ruby is broadcast over several internet radio stations.

May. 6th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
There's a book by Charles Stross called Halting State that I picked up because it had an orc on the front (I am aware of the adage about books and covers but I'm also very distracted by shiny things, it's a curse). It was about crime in the future. It's about a crime set in Edinburgh in the near future through the medium of a computer game. I am possibly the only crime-loving, game-loving, Edinburgh-loving, fantasy-loving, scientist in the world and therefore the only person this works for. I am so glad I found it.

What I am getting irritated about is Waterstone's obsession with dropping anything with a vampire in it onto their horror shelves. I picked up New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear (before the race debacle) in the horror section. It's crime set in an alternative history with magic and air balloons. But because one of the investigators is a vampire it was in Horror. What is that about?
May. 6th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
Now, you've brought up something else that I find interesting: when well-known authors choose to use a pen name in order to write a story that they're not known to write.

I REALLY want to read the In Death series now because of your fantastic description, but I actually want to read it even more because I know it's written by Nora Roberts, who's awesome! I do understand that lovers of her romance novels may not find her sci-fi crime novels as riveting, but I happen to be a lover of both genres.
May. 6th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Pen names are funny things. I often consider having one! I know of authors who have four... I think that would be very confusing. And I do like to know their alternate names, as I read across genres happily and for instance, after reading In Death, will definitely check out more Nora Roberts.

It's a tightrope balance between 'don't disgruntle old readers who want your name to mean what they already like, don't put off new readers who have already decided you're not their cuppa but will like this new stuff' and 'but backlist powers your sales - people wish to find you!'
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May. 6th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
Yay, great post! :)

I know the I Don't Read That Stuff kind of people. A lot of them There are even some among my best friends, which is rather shocking and sad and horrible to me! One even said to me, once, that she didn't read that stuff because it makes you lose your grip on reality. I felt a little insulted, because I consider myself as someone who has a rather good grip on reality. Fairies! Leprechauns! Unicorns! Schmendrick! They're all real!


I totally do not understand why people would think something like this. Because- fantasy, sci-fi, they explore every-day themes and problems all the time, and sometimes even in a more realistic way than a non-fantasy/non-sci-fi novel would. After I had explained this to said friend of mine, she said something along the lines of: "Yes, but these stories are set in another world!" (She went on for a bit, but I think I decided not to keep listening.) I did not try and explain to her the concept of urban fantasy.

But, I have made a decision. The next time someone tells me they don't read that stuff, I am going to ask them one thing. Namely if they enjoy reading fairytales. You know, the ones the Grimm's brothers have collected, or Andersen's. In a way, they are the pioneer fantasy stories; and I'm rather sure a lot of people like these. Those are probably the stories that have been read to them when they were small all the time, those are the stories Disney films are made of. Everybody loves them! And then they go and tell you they don't read this stuff. Ha! Like hell they don't.

And now I have to be off, to read some of that stuff.
May. 6th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
I think it's a big problem of publishers, too: they decide a book is one thing and promote it solely as such, when in fact it is probably another. I remember the first Terry Pratchett novel, which was shelved in Sci Fi (I an not sure that fantasy humour existed in those days): I had to go back and re-read the first chapter to get the entirety of the satire once I twigged it was more than just an added extra.

May. 6th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
I was in my local Waterstones today, and noticed that in addition to the SciFi/Fantasy section, they also now have a Dark Fantasy section, which seemed to just be a shorter way of saying "fantasy books with black covers."
May. 7th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
Well, 20 years ago or so, it meant "fantasy that might possibly have snurched a few nifty things from horror," but that's since become the default, so I hadn't actually heard the term in a while. (It's also what they called Misty Lackey's and Tanya Huff's urban fantasy before somebody coined "urban fantasy." Which I still think should be "contemporary fantasy," but that boat has really most sincerely sailed.)

Interesting that a store has started a section called that now. Wonder what they mean by it, exactly? Or do they actually have enough fluffier fantasy to fill out the original section.

Categories are puzzling and fascinating things.
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May. 6th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Have you read Nora Roberts's In the Garden trilogy? (It starts with Blue Dahlia.) Those were the books that made me a big NR fan - they're three linked romances about strong women (in a really great, supportive friendship) all working to uncover the mystery of the ghost on the estate where they live. It's a really nice mix of contemporary romance with supernatural fantasy. So much fun!

(I also really love her Bride quartet, but that has no fantasy or SF elements, alas...)
May. 11th, 2010 06:02 am (UTC)
I love this trilogy. I especially love it because it combines the supernatural with genealogy, and genealogy is one of my passions. It's also why I love Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters, she writes the Amelia Peabody series).
May. 6th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
May. 6th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Whenever I tell people that my favourite genre is Fantasy, they (generally) think I'm talking about Erotica. :-/
May. 6th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
Well, all of the adult fantasy I've ever read did include at least one obligatory bad sex scene.

This is why I almost exclusively read YA novels. o.o
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